Assessing the sustainability of products and services:
Bring strategic sustainability into your product design and innovation
The Natural Step’s Strategic Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA) approach helps organisations define, assess and communicate product sustainability. SLCA can be described as an assessment tool and an accompanying process that gives you a strategic overview of the full scope of social and ecological sustainability at the product level.
It results in an analysis – using colours instead of numbers – that allows a company to see the major impacts of today’s product through the whole lifecycle in relation to principle requirements of sustainability. The process then helps you so to create plans for how to successfully bridge the sustainability gap.
What is it used for?
The SLCA allows for rapid yet rigorous assessment, capacity building and communication around product sustainability.
The Ten Step SLCA process identifies the major issues in relation to a product or process in a qualitative manner, allowing key aspects to be strategically explored in greater quantified detail if necessary (e.g. by LCA studies or other methods). After identifying sustainability challenges, the process helps with creative thinking about how to overcome the challenges.
By bringing together a cross-functional working group together for the assessment, the SLCA process also helps to build a shared understanding of sustainability challenges across the company, supporting the development of sustainable innovation agendas and road maps.
In other words, Strategic Life Cycle Assessment helps achieve quicker and more strategic decision-making when it comes to product innovation for sustainability.
How does it work?
The process uses an SLCA tool containing carefully directed questions underpinning each life cycle stage to help product teams identify and think innovatively about sustainability challenges. The answers result in a qualitative colour-coded matrix that communicates sustainability impacts to non-experts and benchmarks progress. The insights from the analysis allow for identifying development pathways towards full sustainability.
Benefits of SLCA
A method to plan in a complex and uncertain environment, underpinned by researched and well-tested methods.
Reduces the chance that creating a ‘solution’ in one part of the system transfers problems elsewhere or creates new ones.
Helps product teams to think systemically about a product and and reveals hot-spots over the complete life cycle of any product.
Provides a way to judge whether or not an innovation is truly more sustainable or not.
Fosters collaboration around a shared vision for a sustainable product or service
Communicates sustainability impacts to non-experts.
Deliver actionable insight and help set strategic priorities for sustainable innovation
Depth of assessment can be adjusted, allowing the process to be designed to suit your budget and timeframes.
Quicker and cheaper than a full life cycle analysis (LCA).
The SLCA process is carried out in ten steps that combine the requirements of the ISO standard for Life Cycle Assessment (ISO 1404X) with the strategic planning methodology of the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development.
The ten steps of SLCA process:
- Setting goal and scope
- Creating a shared definition of the sustainable product system
- Define the system boundaries and life cycle scenario for the sustainability assessment
- Conduct an inventory analysis of the life cycle
- Sustainability assessment – Use the sustainability principles to assess sustainability strengths and weaknesses
- Analysis & synthesis of results – Identifying key impact areas
- Brainstorm possible solutions
- Prioritise solutions
- Create an innovation roadmap
- Measure and report progress (ongoing)
SLCA and innovation for the circular economy
The SLCA process is an ideal tool to help develop your circular innovation strategies. The tool can be customized to any value chain and life cycle stages. Some examples of how SLCA is being applied in the circular economy:
- Align innovation for the circular economy with a holistic view of sustainability
- assess suitable material choices and management options
- assess the level of ‘circularity’ of an existing product
- identify transition pathways to integrate recycled materials from the linear economy into safe and increasingly circular material loops.
- integrate social sustainability considerations into circular product innovation
The SLCA in practice
The SLCA has been used, tested and developed through our work with a number of different organisations – from speciality chemicals companies like Rohm and Haas, to consumer-oriented companies like Nike and construction companies such as Carillion.
The SLCA was used to develop strategies to improve the sustainability of paint for ICI, and won the ICI Chief Executive’s Leadership Award for Sustainability for Product Stewardship. The SLCA tool helped to identify 25 key sustainability aspects across the life cycle of paint, which helped choose the core innovation projects throughout a three year program. It has also become a filter that will be built into ICI Paints innovation stage-gate process.
The SLCA matrix has also been used as a structured framework to identify sustainability issues for key ingredients with the food team at Prêt A Manger. The process aimed to show areas of concern across the lifecycle and identify knowledge gaps.
Case studies and guidance
- Introduction to SLCA: Assessing Product Sustainability – a strategic approach to assessing the life cycle of products using the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development.
- Rohm and Haas: A strategic approach toward sustainability for Vinyl Additives – SLCA on PVC heat stabilisers
- ICI Paints
- Paint the Town Green (Forum for the Future)
- Background research: Ny, H., MacDonald, J.P., Broman, G., Ryoichi, Y., and Robert, K-H, 2006, “Sustainability Constraints as System Boundaries: An Approach to Making Life-Cycle Management Strategic“, Journal of Industrial Ecology, Volume 10, Issue 1-2.
- Product label for specific PVC applications: VinylPlus Product Label
- Other organisations where the SLCA methodology was applied include: Nike, Carillion, Prêt A Manger, Scott Bader, Këkkila, Becker, GEOX, Bally, Versace, Decathlon, etc.