Why Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Practitioners are Imperative for Successful Net Zero Transitions in the Consumer Goods Industry

27 April 2022 by Greg Brittain
blog author

Everything we consume has an impact on the environment, from the humble jar of marmalade we spread on our morning toast, right through to the car we drive. But how much of an impact do our consumer decisions have on lowering their carbon footprint?

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) will analyse and verify the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a commercial product’s life cycle. While there is no legislation in place that requires LCA’s to be conducted (yet), there is an increased need and demand for LCA implementation if we are to complete a successful journey towards a Net Zero future in consumer goods and a Net Positive future for businesses beyond this.

An LCA is a long investigation (it can take up to a year) where the right questions need to be asked. It is important to ascertain what the carbon footprint of this product is and what the highest risk is while looking at whether there are any hazardous materials or substances being used in the supply chain and find suitable, sustainable alternatives.

In consumer goods, an LCA is an even bigger issue and is evolving rapidly. Consumer goods businesses tend to have some of the most complex supply chains, often with a global footprint. They are facing pressure on multiple fronts to understand their supply chains and products better, improve them and be transparent about what they understand and where they are planning to develop them. Each product will be analysed using cradle-to-grave analysis and LCA practitioners will use their deep understanding of how to reduce product emissions within a supplier base, by examining transportation, ingredients and packaging before assessing whether alternatives could be used that are less carbon-intensive and more environmentally friendly.

There is no doubt that the increasing demand for LCAs is a hot topic at present because it’s the key to calculating carbon footprints in order to successfully develop a Net Zero strategy. You cannot implement a Net Zero strategy successfully without fully understanding every stage of the product cycle and every material, supplier and logistical movement - it is vital to have the in-depth knowledge of every stage of production in order to correctly calculate the carbon footprint and this requires an expert.

The challenge, however, is finding an LCA practitioner who is well-equipped to take on this intimidating task. There is not exactly an abundance of highly talented individuals due to the distinctly technical, specialist skillset required and usually, a PhD is added to the list of requirements – these skills take years to develop. Acre has seen a marked increase in demand for competent LCA practitioners over the last year but competent LCA practitioners with industry experience are still few and far between. 

Most of these experts are likely to possess many years of experience working on products, with larger firms most likely having the luxury of in-house capabilities and if they don’t, they are now hiring. Having said this, they will still lean on some consultancies for part of the assessment, or a leader will be responsible for the coordination of the entire investigation. Assurance businesses can also step in to assure the report, checking for gaps and omissions, although they often will not provide as much detail.

An accurate LCA should play a key role in responsible business practice, even if the legislation hasn’t come into force yet because it demonstrates that a business is serious about a Net Zero transition, it will fully understand where its emissions lie, and investors expect businesses to understand their products’ impacts in granular detail.

In the coming years, we can expect to see every British registered consumer goods business required to prove they have conducted an in-depth LCA on their product. There is currently legislation in discussion in the EU with the probability that businesses will need to disclose what the environmental footprint is on every product. 

As a result, Acre has created an internal working group to focus solely on this issue, which will serve to support the continued increase in demand we are seeing now and will continue to see across the UK, Europe, America and Asia-Pacific as businesses continue their journey towards Net Zero. We are succeeding and making placements, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to find competent practitioners in this booming market with limited practitioners, so as an industry, we need to find solutions.

My major concern on how we close the gap in the market between the low number of LCA practitioners and the rising urgency in the demand for the assessments themselves is around how long it takes to qualify and gain experience in this specialism. More consumer goods companies are sharpening their sustainability efforts and focusing on LCAs for their product development, but the growing market is expanding far beyond the relatively small number of individuals who can do this exceptionally niche job. 

This is placing a barrier in front of consumer goods businesses aiming to reach Net Zero, so perhaps one solution is that we engage with the individuals who have previously had some LCA experience who then subsequently moved into a broader sustainability space, in a bid to close this ever-widening gap but could this just create a gap elsewhere in the sustainability agenda?

Or perhaps we look further afield for potential assessors from Europe and beyond, but again there are barriers in sponsorship and immigration policy to contend with. Only a handful of universities offer full-time LCA courses in the UK and potential students need a strong academic background to begin this route.

I would welcome your views on this subject, as I would (like many others!) like to see a Net Zero future. For this, we will need a strong number of LCA practitioners in the talent pool to conduct these crucial assessments, so we can shift up a gear and accelerate towards the Net Zero goal as time is running out. To discuss the subject matter further, please reach out via greg.brittain@acre.com

Greg, Head of FMCG, leads senior searches for Acre across the fields of Health, Safety, Environment & Sustainability with a particular focus on complex international projects.

Greg has worked globally with some of the biggest names in the manufacturing, extractives, infrastructure and power generation industries. Recent assignments include managing a large global recruitment campaign across eight regional hubs, building an audit and compliance function for an FMGC client, a Director on a sustainable power project in Ghana and an Interim HSE Director for a FTSE 100 manufacturing firm.

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