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Life Cycle Assessment : definition and example

What is the life cycle assessment of a product? How to make an LCA and a product assessment? How to evaluate the environmental impacts of a product?

We are experts in eco-design and we have the answers to your questions. The life cycle assessment of a product (LCA) is a step by step evaluation method used for eco-design. It allows to evaluate the environmental impacts of a product or a service.
In this article, you will discover :
  • The 4 main steps of LCA;
  • An illustrated example of the life cycle of a product;
  • The costs and services to be considered when conducting an LCA.

Life Cycle Assessment or LCA

The analysis of the life cycle of a product is an iterative process. But it is also a standardized method that follows the ISO 14040 and 14044 standards. It is the most successful tool for the global and multi-criteria evaluation of environmental impacts. The principle is to identify and quantify the flows associated with the design of a product. All the flows are analyzed, whether they are material or energy. This double approach (life cycle + multi-criteria) allows to evaluate the potential impacts of the project on the environment. In the end, a life cycle analysis makes it possible to obtain the multi-criteria environmental balance of a system over its entire life cycle. To identify precisely its impacts on the environment. Thanks to this assessment, we can compare two solutions to the same problem (with equal quality of service) in order to select the most respectful for the preservation of the planet. In most cases, you will need an adapted software to perform a life cycle analysis. Software adapted to LCA are relatively numerous, we can quote Simapro published in the Netherlands, GaBi and openLCA published in Germany and Ecodesign Studio published in France.

The analysis method

Four main steps structure the realization of an LCA, and we will develop the main lines of the approach in the following lines.
  1. Objective and scope of the study

The objectives of the LCA must be defined. Three final applications can be determined: comparison, eco-design and environmental declaration. The field of study includes the functions, the functional unit and the boundaries of the product, as well as the limits of the study. It should be noted that the functional unit is in fact the unit of measurement used to make the final comparisons. This step also consists of selecting the right indicators for the study in relation to the subject under study.
Did you know? A good functional unit has at least three criteria for describing the main function of the product under study: one relating to its life span, another relating to an associated quantity and frequency, and the last relating to performance.
For example, for a kettle: Lifetime: 6 years Quantity/frequency: 1.7 liters of water, twice a day Performance: heating in less than 3 minutes The functional unit of the kettle is then expressed as follows: "To bring 1.7 liters of water to boil in less than 3 minutes, twice a day, for 6 years". In LCA, this functional unit allows the comparability of the product studied. Indeed, if a competitor's kettle has a lifespan of only 3 years, the environmental impacts of the latter will be twice as high to guarantee a service rendered over 6 years (because the purchase of 2 kettles is necessary). In LCA, this functional unit allows the comparability of the product studied.
  1. LCI Inventory

An inventory is made of the incoming and outgoing flows, taking into account the energy and material aspects. Each flow must be linked to each stage of the life cycle. The data is derived from activity factors, emission factors and various databases. This is the crucial step of the life cycle assessment. This step can theoretically be done by hand using a spreadsheet, but it can be greatly facilitated by using an appropriate software. The risks of error are high during the inventory, which is why control procedures must be put in place.
  1. Impact Assessment

This is the stage where the potential environmental impacts of the system are assessed. Two concepts are important here: midpoints and endpoints. The previously identified flows are transformed to derive indicators of potential impacts of the project. The midpoints are the "problem" oriented impact categories: they reflect the consumption or emission of problematic substances reduced to a common unit. For example, in midpoint, the impact on soil acidification is measured in SO2 equivalent. The endpoints are the impact categories oriented "damage": they account for the final damage caused by the consumption or emission of substances. For endpoint soil acidification, LCA proposes to measure the impact in PDF (Potentially Disappeared Fraction of species): this quantifies the loss of biodiversity on a given surface. While midpoints are particularly appreciated by designers for their low level of uncertainty, endpoints are effective for communicating LCA results to decision-makers.
  1. Interpretation correlated to the objectives

The last step is in fact an invitation to interpret and loop the entire process with a spirit of continuous improvement. The steps are reviewed and improved until complete satisfaction, according to the results collected. This last step allows the identification of hot-spots in the product life cycle. It allows to direct eco-design actions directly on critical points. For example, this step can highlight a particular component of the studied product, which is the main responsible of the environmental impacts of the life cycle and can be replaced at low cost. Through this last step, LCA offers the opportunity to focus on the 20% of the product responsible for 80% of the impacts.

An example of LCA analysis

As we have seen, the life cycle analysis finds its application mainly in the following fields:
  • Identification of environmental impacts
  • Creation of eco-designed products
  • Product benchmarking
  • Communication of a sustainable approach
LCA example of a ski jacket. Source :

The limits of life cycle assessment

Like any method, this one has some limitations that should be kept in mind. LCA is a tool that takes into account many criteria, but not all the existing criteria! Indeed, some aspects are not taken into account. For example: noise, odors, weather, light pollution, landscape impacts, etc. Therefore, LCA is not the only method to do eco-design. It can be ill-adapted to certain situations. Moreover, the results depend on the starting hypotheses, which can be miscalibrated or even wrong. There are a number of issues to discuss before embarking on a life cycle assessment. Because this method requires a lot of time and energy, it must be carefully thought through.
  • Are there any LCAs of similar products?
  • What is the objective of the approach?
  • Are there other relevant tools to use?
  • Can we do the study ourselves?
  • Do we have accurate data?
  • Does the project have the appropriate data?
  • Are the results made public?
  • Is the study still relevant, even without taking into account the relativity of the assumptions?

What is the cost of an LCA?

How much does an LCA cost? To calculate the total price of an LCA, the following steps must be taken into account:

Cost of the software

You will need to use specialized software for stroke. Most of them are not free. The best known are: SimaPro, GaBi, EcoDesgin Studio and openLCA. Some examples for information:

Cost of software updates

Some LCA software like SimaPro charge for annual updates. For SimaPro, the annual update costs 1,500 euros. However, updates are not mandatory. It depends on your needs. For the EcoDesign Studio software, software updates are included in the basic license.

Cost of the databases

There are different databases depending on the sector of activity. There are free databases such as the IMPACTS database. However, most LCA databases are not free. This is an additional cost to be incurred. For example, access to the ecoinvent database costs 750 euros per year per user.

Cost of software training

LCA software is specialized and requires a certain amount of technical knowledge from the user. Thus, it will most of the time be essential to get training to master an LCA software. The cost varies depending on the size and level of expertise of your team. For the openLCA software, training is not mandatory. But in fact, it is almost indispensable for optimal use. For EcoDesign Studio, training is included in the basic license. The ergonomics of the software has been thought for the most fluid user experience possible.

Cost of internalizing skills

In order to be exhaustive, you can also estimate the time spent for each employee concerned to internalize the skills needed to use an LCA software.

Optional cost of critical review

Within the framework of the ISO 14040 standard, you have the possibility of calling upon an external expert to validate the respect of the methodology used. In order to ensure that the LCA study you have carried out complies with the ISO 14040 standard. This step is mandatory only for companies that want to be certified ISO 14040.

Why do an LCA?

Limiting the environmental impact of products by reusing their end-of-life materials reduces the extraction of raw materials in order to preserve natural resources. Energy consumption during the life cycle of a product must also be taken into account to improve environmental performance. Life cycle analysis is an integral part of the eco-design and environmental management process. The processes used at all stages of the product life cycle must be in line with the principles of the circular economy. The packaging and the durability of the systems studied are also factors that help to reduce the environmental footprint over the entire cycle. Life cycle assessment is a tool to indirectly manage natural resource depletion and energy performance. It is a decision-making tool in an eco-design approach that respects international standards. At the same time, the goal is to develop a more environmentally friendly production method. By taking into account many factors such as the possible toxicity of certain elements, human health, pollutants and the carbon footprint.