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  • Writer's pictureZsofia NAGY

Life cycle assessment (LCA) approaches to support value chain sustainability

Updated: Nov 7, 2023

Subtitle: Looking back on the last 2 decades vs. now on these assessment tools to bring them back to reality

Some recent discussions prompted me to write a bit more extensively about environmental & social impact assessments in supply chains (and businesses).

To be more specific, these assessment types & frameworks can be (non-exhaustive list): IMS, LCA (E and S), CF, LCD, LCC, PE, CR, RSCM, LCSA etc.

(the meaning of these acronyms can be looked up by those not knowing them yet -

The discussions revolved around expertise in the area and what it actually entails.

Who has real expertise and who hasn't?

It is not easy to evaluate...or it is, if we know what we are doing.

As a professional, I can also recommend these tools along the overall, high-level assessments that provide strategic & tactical directions. These are the supportive tools to provide factual data into these overall assessment tools (e.g. B-Corp assessment, E2E SCM impact assessment, Circulitics, etc.).

So what can be still ambiguous (where is the problem)?

Let's unpack some reality related to these tool-boxes that are now hyped to provide support to becoming sustainable as a business, specifically in supply chains.

I'd like to clarify up front, that the mere use of these tools does not warrant that a company can derive the right conclusions and can become sustainable or wants to become sustainable despite now being labelled in many publications as "the sustainability tool-box".

Therefore even professionals, who want to work in the field of sustainability, need to be vigilant and ask the relevant clarifying questions from the companies they are targeting to ensure they actually work on making the company sustainable (making a real change) and not merely just fulfilling legal requirements that have been around for decades.

The reasons for these are the following:

  1. The relevant voluntary assessment guidelines, certifications & reporting frameworks have been available since the 90's or earlier and the actions from using them did not result in sustainable business setups (exceptions apply, as always but it wasn't the norm) - I started working with them as early as 2000's...seems like I'm suddenly young!

  2. Many of these voluntary guidelines/certifications/reporting frameworks have been updated in the last 10 years, most recently have been supplemented in the last 5 years - therefore the "hype" around them should be brought back to reality.

Many of those incredible professionals in the earlier fields of EHS and QA/QM, from whom I learnt a lot about these assessment tool-kits while carrying them out (many times I was info provider, many times I was doing the assessments with them) can testify that most companies used these assessments to fulfill the bare minimum that was legally required in Europe or elsewhere to keep their licence to operate.

Side note only: all early assessments were done without systems at the time…nice MS Excel/Access-based works, now younger generations are lucky, they have new(er) systems to do these and even the bigger solution providers woke up and incorporated these slowly in their repertoire.

Most of the times, when companies could not meet the increasing requirements, the course of actions they defaulted to were the following:

  1. Outsourcing & offshoring to Asia

  2. Outsourcing & offshoring to Eastern Europe or Middle-East

  3. Redesigned the impacted products/services only to a degree that they could prove it didn't fall under the new requirements, so they could continue doing as before

  4. Formed allies of competitive parties to influence legislation makers to arrive to a milder set of requirements they could meet without heavy lifting

Now, before people throw stones at me for pointing out the brutal negative aspects…

I do not say that the above actions cannot be legitimate actions to support a company to make their businesses better, or run it smoother, or to influence legislation in a good way for a whole industry and there are good examples to prove that too.

But it is also fair to acknowledge that all of these actions were also used many times to:

  1. Avoid change (in all ways possible: physical structure & mental structure of a business)

  2. Avoid risk of being the first to change (still true for most companies when evaluating sustainable solutions!)

  3. Using them only to get further monetary gains instead of improving products/services from an environmental & social point of view

It is also fair to acknowledge that many professionals in the EHS / QA / SCM / OPS fields have left their roles, or had to put up with quite some professional let downs due to how their expertise was under-utilised or even left unused, when we think about sustainability.

Every time a new legislation came around, I saw a sparkle in their eyes and then so often disappointment right after when they realised there was no real change in the end. It didn't go unnoticed and I drew my own conclusions at the time.

Let's not forget this and try to build on those experts now in a truly sustainable way, who won't run around as explicit "sustainability experts with fresh certification pedigrees", but have managed a lot of the unsustainable variables trying to make legal ends meet while biting their lips in the process.

At this point, many of my peers in the sustainability field will roll their eyes and say:

Aren't we stating the obvious again? Meaning: tools are only as good as the intention behind and the requirement variables that go into them.

The answer is YES!

These tools are incredibly useful. However, their usefulness in making your company sustainable is dependent on defining your aim correctly and using the relevant sustainable variables (requirements / targets states) while working through these assessments.

This requires a huge mental change for most businesses. They are getting there, partially supported by new legislation (like the GSCA) that is now compulsory and not voluntary.

Bottom line therefore is:

  1. Work on correctly defining the sustainable state for your company & educate everyone in the business

  2. Work on correctly defining your business models & requirement variables accordingly

  3. Then use the supporting tools to help you get there

Using a pirate or seafaring analogy: have a correctly working compass before you set sails to your destination or even board that ship!

Once again, I say a heartfelt thank you to all of those in EHS/QA/SCM/OPS I worked with on these assessments during the last 2 decades, who helped me in my early career to not forget about what makes the difference when using these tools!

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