How Using Life Cycle Assessment Is Like Trying To Eat Healthy

LCA, Life Cycle Assessment, Nutrition
Nutritional labels are rarely conclusive and always full of trade-offs

By Dave Hartter

Last month, my wife and I took a quick trip to Charlotte, North Carolina. Lucky for us, we flew JetBlue. Every JetBlue traveler looks forward to the free snacks and DirectTV, and I am no exception.

When the flight attendant came around with the snack options, I quickly glanced at the choices and settled on a mini-bag of popcorn chips, presuming it was the healthiest option. I also snacked on my wife’s animal crackers.

I wondered, had I chosen the healthier option, or had my wife?

I flipped the packages over, and there I found calories, cholesterol, sodium, fat and other nutritional categories listed. If one snack was better in all categories (higher in vitamins and minerals, lower in fat, sugar and salt), the healthier choice would have been obvious. However, in this particular instance, the popcorn chips snack was better in some nutritional categories, while the animal crackers were better in others.

How, then, does the consumer make the healthier choice? The answer most likely depends on the individual. Someone with diabetes may choose an option with less sugar, while someone with high blood pressure may be more concerned with salt content. For those concerned with their personal health, the nutrition label enables them to make an informed decision based on trade-offs to best suit their individual interests.

The same holds true for a company reviewing the results of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Companies often face trade-offs when evaluating the environmental impacts of a product. Whereas a nutritional label reports calories, fat content, and the like, LCA reports deal in climate change impacts, acidification, ozone depletion, and so on.

Whether the choice is paper or plastic, disposable or reusable, or petroleum-based or bio-based, there are often trade-offs. To some, it can be frustrating when there is no option that is the clear environmental winner. However, the copious amount of information an LCA provides should be viewed as a benefit, not a detriment.

Rather than causing “analysis paralysis,” LCAs offer an exceedingly valuable input into a company’s environmental decision-making process

By determining the environmental impacts in multiple impact categories, companies are able to understand the environmental trade-offs inherent in their product decisions. Life Cycle Assessment enables companies to make value judgments to reduce the environmental impacts that matter to their shareholders, employees, consumers and the communities where they manufacture their products.

A company manufacturing in an area prone to drought is likely to value water conservation, while a company operating near a polluted watershed should value reducing eutrophication impacts. While companies (and consumers) should work to reduce their impacts in all environmental impact categories, a value judgment is often required to determine how to address the various environmental impact categories and choose between options, particularly when trade-offs exist.

Just as a single health indicator can’t apply to all consumers, a single environmental indicator won’t apply to all companies. Each company sells different products, manufactures in different geographies and markets to different people. This is not to say that companies shouldn’t develop their own single environmental indicator, but it should be based on their internal value system that they use to make important decisions.

So next time you are on a plane or at the store, would you want to see a nutritional label that only had one category? Could you really make the decision that was best for you with such limited information? You should expect the same when trying to understand your company’s environmental impacts.


Dave Hartter is Senior Sustainability Analyst at EarthShift


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