A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a tool used to evaluate the potential environmental impact of a product, process or activity throughout its entire life cycle by quantifying the use of resources ("inputs" such as energy, raw materials, water) and environmental emissions ("outputs" to air, water and soil) associated with the system that is being evaluated.

Life Cycle Assessments offer an analysis of a product’s life cycle from cradle to gate, cradle to grave and cradle to cradle. Two types of systems of particular interest to P&G are the analyses of the life cycle of a product (such as a detergent) or an activity (such as washing clothes). LCA studies are conducted for the purpose of answering certain questions, and those questions drive the design of the LCA study. One such question could be: How does the potential environmental impact of a new product compare to that of products that are already on the market? (See our LCA case studies.)

LCA is one of the tools in our toolbox for assessing P&G products, packaging and processes. Other tools are discussed elsewhere and include:


  • What is a Life Cycle Assessment?

    Definition of a Life Cycle Assessment

    The stages of a product’s Life Cycle

    Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a method developed to evaluate the mass balance of inputs and outputs of systems. These inputs and outputs are organized and converted into environmental themes or categories that assess resource use, human health and ecological areas.

    The quantification of inputs and outputs of a system is called Life Cycle Inventory (LCI). At this stage, all emissions are reported on a volume or mass basis (e.g., kg of CO2, kg of cadmium, cubic meter of solid waste…). A Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) converts these flows into simpler indicators.
    There are different factors that affect the results of a Life Cycle Assessment including the definition of a functional unit and the data requirements.

    • Functional Unit

      One of the first steps before starting an LCA is to define the "functional unit", which is related to the function that a product or service will deliver. When conducting an LCA on laundry detergent, we often report the results on the basis of 1000 wash cycles. The definition of a functional unit is actually very closely linked to the question asked. There is no single functional unit, but many, depending on the type of questions we want to answer. Energy and raw materials consumption as well as associated environmental emissions are calculated on the basis of this functional unit.

    • Data Requirements

      To construct a full life cycle of laundry detergent, which involves many different processes, the requirement for data is very important. The range goes from the making of the raw materials, which can take place in different parts of the world, to the making of the detergent product, which takes place in a few, well identified, locations. (P&G has a small number of plants that manufacture its laundry detergent products for the whole of Europe.) Usage and disposal are critical data to collect in order to analyse and understand the life cycle impact of a "product."

      Comparing washing systems between countries involves more than just comparing two boxes of detergents. For example, people in Northern Europe do not wash their clothing at the same temperature as people living in the South. Detergent dosage is also different from North to South due to different levels of water hardness.

  • Life Cycle Assessment and Risk Assessment

    While LCA characterizes emissions and waste over a product's life cycle, it does not allow for a complete assessment of a product's potential impacts, also sometimes referred to as its "safety profile" or its "risk assessment." This is because risk assessments evaluates the actual risk to the environment (or human) as the result of a specific exposure in a specific situation (such as the effects of the presence of a detergent residue in surface waters), whereas Life Cycle Assessments report and analyse the emissions from across all lifecycle phases, normalised on a chosen functional unit basis (i.e., amount of emissions per 1000 wash cycles or per 1 kg finished product).

    In addition to risk assessments, LCA is one of the tools in our toolbox for assessing and improving P&G products, packaging and processes. An LCA does not consider exposure such as the concentration of a chemical in an environmental compartment (expressed in mg/l), which is critical for assessing risk. An LCA quantifies emissions as a mass (g or kg). The actual impacts of those emissions depend on when, where and how they are released into the environment, and these are elements of a risk assessment. The exposure and hazard assessments, required as input for the risk assessments, are then not part of the LCA. For each type of emission, the probability of adverse impacts can be quantified by risk assessment, taking into account all sources of exposure.

    LCA was not designed to do that, but rather it was designed to understand the relative contribution of each stage of the life cycle to certain environmental impact categories. LCA also allows comparisons between equivalent stages of life cycles (i.e., the consumer stage of product A and the consumer stage of product B), provided that the Life Cycle Inventories (LCIs) rely on the same databases and the same assumptions.

    Thus, even though LCA cannot tell us whether the use of a product is "safe," it does provide us with "indicators" concerning impact assessment scores of the relative contributions of entire or partial product life cycles to specified impact categories.

    As such, it can be a powerful aid for the risk manager in business or in government, which is needed to decide which exposures should be managed first and to communicate this effectively to diverse audiences.

    Depending on the goal of the study, the level of detail of an LCA may vary considerably. If it is for internal and screening purposes, the quality of the data may be less scrutinized (or less important) than if the work is going to be used for external claims. For external claims, P&G feels that full compliance with ISO guidelines is a must.

  • Why do we conduct LCAs?

    Life Cycle Assessment are used to answer specific questions such as:

    • How do two different manufacturing processes for the same product compare in terms of resource use and emissions?
    • How do compact laundry or dish detergents compare to regular dish detergents in terms of resource use and emissions?
    • What are the relative contributions of the different stages in the life cycle of certain products to total emissions?
    A Life Cycle Assessment can seek to increase efficiency. And because it takes into account every phase in the lifetime of a product, apparent improvements that only shift the problem around are recognized and can be avoided.

  • How do LCAs fit into sustainability?

    One of the strengths of the LCA is its comparative character. This allows LCAs to holistically evaluate different systems providing similar functions on a number of environmental aspects. Because of its broad coverage of environmental indicators, the LCA is well positioned to provide information on the environmental pillar of sustainability. Often the outcome of LCA studies is not pointing in a single direction, so there is typically not a “better or worse” outcome.

    Getting an insight into where product systems can be improved provides valuable information and helps decision makers in setting priorities for product innovation or reducing environmental impacts. Given that LCAs are not well positioned to provide answers on safety (as discussed in the previous section), environmental sustainability should make use of complementary tools that together provide a comprehensive assessment of the product under study.

  • LCAs at P&G

    Procter & Gamble pioneered the development of Life Cycle Assessments and has been continuously using LCA to guide decision making since the late 1980s. In the last decade, Procter & Gamble has adopted ISO 14040 standards for LCAs. Researchers at P&G routinely use LCA approaches to:

    • Analyze products from a system-wide, functional unit point of view in a consistent, transparent and reproducible manner in order to: guide choices of raw materials, guide product innovation and design packaging with lower impact,
    • Analyze the energy and resource use in the detergent system,
    • Analyze various emissions, wastes, and resources using environmental themes,
    • Identify what parameters are most likely to be significant to monitor and control,
    • Identify opportunities for improving overall system performance, and
    • Benchmark the product over time and report progress.

  • ISO and Product Category Rules

    Procter & Gamble complies with ISO 14040 / 14044 standards for Life Cycle Assessments. The standards outline a framework for running LCA studies and prescribe requirements within each phase of an LCA study.

    Product Category Rules
    Protocols, such as defined under ISO or any other standardization unit, are helpful to avoid different results between users, related to a different methodological approach. However, it may be necessary to further standardize some aspects (methodology, selection of data) within product categories. This is because the lifetime of products can be very different (e.g., household vs. consumer product) and therefore the method to calculate the life cycle impact may differ. Also, the geographical or technological scope can be different, requiring the use of different databases. To deal with these product related differences, further specifications can be standardized in so-called Product Category Rules (PCRs). The idea behind PCRs is not new and originates from the development of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which is also standardized under ISO (ISO 14025).

  • Simplified LCAs: The Use of Footprints

    What are Footprints?
    Footprints are single score results for a specific indicator, usually following life cycle thinking. They can cover the entire life cycle (from cradle to grave) or parts thereof (cradle to gate, gate to gate…). Unlike LCA product comparisons (which most often result in trade-offs between different types of indicators), footprints are easy to understand because they communicate a result in a single direction (better/worse). Carbon footprints are the best known footprints, but there has been a clear trend to develop more types of footprints.

    • P&G’s position on footprints

      P&G believes footprints can be an important tool for identifying improvement opportunities. For this reason, P&G supports the development of various rigorous standardized protocols, based on LCAs. Footprints are also useful to measure progress. While it is useful to communicate on a single aspect, P&G believes it is also important to consider other relevant environmental indicators. There are several initiatives to provide footprint information on consumer packs, e.g., carbon labels. P&G does not yet support these recent initiatives, because:

      • these labels are not actionable to consumers and have a high uncertainty.
      • Unlike nutrition labels, the information provided is not factual and involves numerous assumptions to derive a single result.
      • With ever changing supply chains, these labels would also require a constant change to stay up to date with the latest information.
      • The result on a label needs to be seen in relation to its function (performance). Within a given product category, lower performing products may require higher dosage, making the product often worse from an environmental point of view, which is not communicated via the carbon label.

    • Carbon Footprints: Standardizing Various Protocols

      While simple in its interpretation, the calculation of a carbon footprint is complex in nature, similar to LCAs. As carbon footprinting draws information from many databases, numerous assumptions are necessary. To align the different methodological choices and approaches, several initiatives have taken place in the past years to standardize carbon footprints. Commonly known protocols are PAS 2050 (from the British Standards Institution), the Greenhouse Gas protocol from the World Resources Institute (WRI) and ISO 14067 (standard under development from the International Organization for Standardization). P&G contributed with case studies to the Greenhouse Gas protocol from WRI. The standardization process is absolutely necessary. However, further specifications may be necessary for specific product categories. These are commonly dealt with in Product Category Rules (PCRs).

    • Water Footprint

      With the planet’s freshwater reserves under increasing pressure, there is a growing interest in also developing water footprints (following the developments around carbon footprints). However, there are significant differences between the environmental impacts they describe. Carbon footprints deal with a globally occurring effect, whereas environmental impacts from unsustainable water management are typically observed on a local scale. This difference requires a very different methodological approach, making it much more complicated to define a meaningful indicator for water. The major discussion is about the scope of the indicator. At the international level, ISO has started on a draft standard (ISO 14046).

  • References and Further Reading

    • De Smet, B., White, P.R., Owens, J.W. (1996). Integrating Life Cycle Assessment within an Overall Framework for Environmental Management. In Curran, M.A., Ed., Environmental Life Cycle Assessment, McGraw-Hill Companies, New York.
    • Owens, J.W. (1996). LCA Impact Assessment: Case Study Using a Consumer Product. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. 1, pp. 209-217.
    • Owens, J.W. (1996). LCA Impact Assessment Categories. Technical Feasibility and Accuracy. Int. J. LCA. 1, pp.151-158.
    • Owens, J.W. Water Resources in Life Cycle Impact Assessment. Considerations in Choosing Category Indicators. Journal of Industrial Ecology, Vol. 5 (2), pp. 37-54.
    • Owens, J.W. (1998). Why Life Cycle Impact Assessment Is Now Described as an Indicator System. Int. J. LCA. 4, pp. 81-86 Pittinger, C.A., Sellers, J.S., Janzen, D.C., Koch, D.G., Rothgeb, T.M., Hunnicutt, M.L. (1993). Environmental Life Cycle Inventories of Detergent-grade Surfactant Sourcing and Production. Jaocs. 70, pp. 1-15.
    • Saouter, E., Feijtel, T.C.J. (2000). Use of Life Cycle Analysis and Environmental Risk Assessment in an Integrated Product Assessment. Environmental Strategies, Nordic Workshop, Vedbaek 1999. ISBN 92-893-0464-2. In Hauschild, M., Olsen, S., Poll, C.F., B-R, Eds., Risk Assessment and Life Cycle Assessment, Temanord 2000:545. Nordic Council of Ministers, Copenhagen 200, pp. 81-97.
    • Saouter, E., Van Hoof, G. (2002). A Database for the Life Cycle Evaluation of Procter & Gamble Laundry Detergent. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.
    • Saouter, E., Van Hoof, G., Feijtel, T.C.J., Owens, J.W. (2002). The Effects of Compact Formliations on the Environmental Profile of North European Granliar Laundry Detergents. Part I: Life Cycle Assessment. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. 7, pp. 27-38.
    • Saouter, E., Van Hoof, G., Feijtel, T.C.J., Stalmans, M., Uhl, J.C., Vollebergt L.H.M., Westra, J. (1998). Life Cycle Inventory on Laundry Detergents: An Analysis of the LCI Profiles of Liquid and Powder Detergents. In 38th WFK International Detergency Conference, Seidenweberhaus, Krefeld, Germany.
    • Saouter, E., Van Hoof, G., Pittinger, C.A., and Feijtel, T.C.J (2001). The Effect of Compact Formliations on the Environmental Profile of Northern European Granliar Laundry Detergents. Part I: Environmental Risk Assessment. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 6 (6), pp. 363-372.
    • Saouter, E., White, P. (2002). Laundry Detergents: Cleaner Clothes and Cleaner Environment. Corporate Environmental Strategy. 9, pp. 40-50.
    • Stalmans, M., Berenbold, H., Berna, J.L., Cavalli, L., Dillarstone, A., Franke, M., Hirshinger, F., Janzen, D., Kosswig, K., Postlethwaite, D., Rappert, T., Renta, C., Schrarer, D., Schick, K.P., Schli, W., Thomas, H., Van Sloten, R. (1995). European Life Cycle Inventory for Detergent Surfactants Production. Tenside Surfactant and Detergent. 32, pp. 84-109.
    • White, P.W., Franke, M., Hindle, P. (1995). Integrated Solid Waste Management: A Lifecycle Inventory. An Imprint of Chapman & Hall, Wester Cleddens Road, Bishopbriggs, Glasgow G64 2NZ.
    • Van Hoof, G., Schowanek, D., Franceschini, H., Muñoz, I. (2011). Ecotoxicity impact assessment of laundry products; a comparison of USEtox and critical dilution volume approaches. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 16: 803-818

    Further Reading

    • Boguski, T.K., Hunt, R.G., Cholakis, J.M., Franklin, W.E. (1996). LCA Methodology. In Curran, M.A., Ed., Environmental Life Cycle Assessment, McGraw-Hill Companies, New York.
    • ISO 14040 (2000). Environmental Management - Life Cycle Assessment - Principles and Framework. ISO/FDIS/TC207SC514040/1997(E).
    • ISO 14041 (2000). Environmental Management - Life Cycle Assessment - Goal and Scope Definition and Inventory Analysis.
    • ISO/TC207/SC5/DIS 14041. ISO 14042 (2000). Environmental Management - Life Cycle Assessment - Life Cycle Impact Assessment.
    • ISO/TC207/SC 5N 97. ISO 14043 (2000). Environmental Management - Life Cycle Assessment - Life Cycle Interpretation. ISO/TC207/SC 5N 104.
    • SETAC (1993). Guidelines for Life Cycle Assessment: A Code of Practice. Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry. Pensacola, FL, Sesimbra, Portugal

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