What's a Life Cycle Assessment?

LCA Definition

How Do You Define ‘Life Cycle Assessment’?

Environmental Life Cycle Thinking allows scientists to think about the impacts of a product at every single point in its journey, from the first time raw materials are taken out of the ground, all the way until the product is finally trashed. Scientists then run complicated models called Life Cycle Assessments, aka LCAs, to calculate all of the possible impacts that a product has on the environment.

Is it regulated? Not all LCAs are created with the same methodology, so some are more credible than others.

Does Finch use it? Yes! All the time.

Want a memory trick? While it might be odd to think about your laundry detergent as a living thing, an LCA accounts for all stages from when a product is born (aka when materials are extracted from the Earth) until its death (aka its “end-of-life”...how morbid).

What’s included in an LCA?

A product’s Life Cycle can be broken down into five main stages – all of which are included in a complete Assessment:

  1. Transportation: This occurs a ton of times during a product’s life cycle. Moving materials from farms or mines to factories, from factories to distribution centers, from distribution centers to stores, from stores to all of us, and from us to the dump or recycling center. All of those planes, trains, and automobiles are polluting, and those impacts all count toward a product’s impacts.
  2. Extraction: This is the stage where all of the raw materials, including chemical components, are pulled out of the environment for use in a product.
  3. Manufacturing: This is the part where all of those extracted materials, plus electricity, heat and human labor, are used to form a final product. This could all happen in one factory or a product might pass through a few dozen companies and their factories until the final product is ready for use. 
  4. Use: This is where all of us come into the picture. All of the electricity, heat, and water we need to turn on, wash, or otherwise use the stuff we buy counts toward the environmental life cycle of those products.
  5. End-of-Life: Once our stuff no longer works, or we just don’t want it anymore, it has to go somewhere. This stage is where we finally trash, recycle, or compost our stuff, completing the life cycle of that product.

How does Finch use LCAs?

Ready for some cool news? Not only do we look to peer-reviewed LCAs to inform our rating system, but we also use life cycle thinking to run our own calculations of all of the possible impacts of a product right here at Finch. LCAs help us evaluate different products so that you can be a more informed consumer. 

Check out some examples of how we dive into the nitty-gritty in some of our latest and greatest blogs, including this plastic vs. bioplastic assessment, this mind-blowing news about which pumpkin to spring for (ceramic, plastic, or real) on Halloween, and this super cool debrief on the environmental impact of four different types of toothbrushes. It’s true – we really, really love LCAs.

Are all LCAs reliable?

In the same way that there are more or less reliable sources, not all LCAs have the same street cred. For example, we might panic if we saw that the New York Times reported that the world is ending, but maybe not so much if we saw it on a billboard driving through Kansas. The reliability of an LCA can vary depending on who the practitioner is, how reliable the data is, how accessible the methods are, and even how equipped a practitioner is to respond appropriately to unexpected events. If 10 different practitioners all conducted an LCA but used varied boundaries – or if they were biased or if there weren’t specific requirements or guidelines – the results could vary every time the LCA was conducted. 

But, have no fear! There are tools in place, such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO)’s management standards, that provide outlines for how to effectively and accurately conduct an LCA considering resource use, human health, and impact on ecological systems. The even better news? We vet the credibility of every LCA before we reference it, so rest assured that if you see an LCA mentioned in our rating system or content, then it’s one of the good ones.