Streamlined LCA for designers
80% of a product’s carbon footprint (environmental impact) is influenced by the decisions made during the design phase. This claim has been echoed over multiple decades and is well recognized today. As an innovator (read: product-service developer, designer, or engineer), you keep hearing this from the high-level decision makers, then become part of discussions fuelling the discussions. However, when the job to be done lands on the table early in the process, we might feel stumped. We find ourselves among conceptual ideas and sketches, all lacking details to conduct a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) but still wanting to have an outlook of potential environmental impact. We can simply make decisions on guesswork, but it’s unlikely we have historical knowledge or data to back those guesses. To cut down on lip service in such situations, we need metrics like carbon footprint (eq. kgCO2e) to make data-based decisions. This is when a streamlined Life Cycle Analysis (sLCA) comes to the rescue.
See the Presentation for an exemplary equation.
Who and what kind of decisions are made with sLCA? Who is this for?
A sLCA is an approach to calculating the carbon footprint of a product or a service based on activity-based calculations. This uses industry averages and assumptions contrary to the actual data in traditional LCA. By creating clever system boundaries and educated assumptions on input data, we can calculate the carbon footprint of material, production, distribution, usage, and end-of-life phases. sLCA can enable product developers to find hotspots in their environmental impact, evaluate concepts, evaluate suppliers (locations, mode of transport, etc.), and prompt communication narratives, thus, informing a better sustainability and design strategy.
Compared to traditional LCA, the sLCA caters to the demands of the fuzzy front end of the design process- to explore and inform conceptual decisions. It provides faster results (reduced time and costs) and can work with undefined details of concepts due to the use of industry averages. Most importantly, sLCA provides carbon footprint as an anchoring metric to the right people- the strategic decision makers (investors, product managers, business developers, R&D, marketing), at the right time—early in the design process. As the design process goes on, the marginal utility of sLCA reduces as the purpose of the carbon footprint changes from making strategic decisions to reporting and certification. Here, towards the rear end, a traditional LCA is more suited.
Peek into the streamlined LCA process
Looking at our desks in the early stages of the design process, we have post-it ideas, napkin sketches, reference products, and a blueprint of the product journey. sLCA process demands primary input data like the material, weight/ volume, distances, production(s) location, etc. This feeds into the activity-based equations, which multiply the input to respective carbon intensities (industry averages pulled from the database) to finally get the carbon footprint (in eq. kgCO2 emissions).
It is upon the designer/the person responsible to input the most educated value based on what is on the table. Since the process is flexible and fast, the designer has the freedom to explore multiple options and test various ‘what-if’ questions. (S)he can explore the results by changing materials, transportation mode, production location, etc. But this can be even further pushed to explore if the product is returned, shared, or repaired. What if we use a recycled cardboard crate that lasts 1 trip instead of a recycled plastic crate that lasts 10,000 trips? The results are often surprising.
Design taking charge
I believe the value for us designers lies in doing this more often, realizing the nuances, finding patterns, and building a mountain of well-informed attitude. Much public discussion and decision in the business world is narrative-driven, which can be misleading without a data point. For example, plastic is demonized; however, it could provide the right ecological and economical solution if reused. Designers are well placed at the intersection where they can simultaneously influence the narrative and develop a solid impactful solution. sLCA can be a tool for designers to have skin in the game. It allows designers to communicate at the decision-making table, alongside multiple disciplines from business and engineering to fellow designers.
We are experiencing heat waves, flooding, and wildfires. Once we understand the destruction taking place around us, and we don’t consider the environmental impacts of our design decisions in our work, we become involved in a strategy of the tragedy. Or we can design our way out. (adapted from Michael Braungart, William McDonough)