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Sustainability work (and life) is full of vexing questions for which we have incomplete data but need to make decisions about today. As a consumer, do I hand wash or machine wash my dishes? As a manager, do I focus on the material of a product, or the energy it uses during its life?

I recently attended a great workshop through SCS Global Services and gained a deeper level of appreciation for life cycle assessment (LCA) work. It was a one day crash course for me, but the LCA practitioners, city managers, and industry experts who were there to brush up and get current with the latest thinking had specific questions, and got detailed answers!

Life Cycle Assessment is a method for crunching enormous amounts of data to assess the impact areas of a product or process, compare them, and make good decisions on how to meet values-driven goals in balance with financial goals. The discipline of LCA work is developing quickly and new tools are becoming more useful as the parameters of the models are fleshed out. An issue we walked through in the training was how and why a new shift in a particular model is making a big difference in the applicability of assessment advice.

The new move is to include consideration of the regionality of an issue in all comparisons. The context is everything. For example, if you simply compare two factories that both have health and environmental hazards from emissions, but ignore the regionality of each place, then you may miss the systems effects.  The different air quality of each place, each factory’s proximity to waterways, and the health and resilience of the environment around a process all significantly affect its actual impact. To compare, you have to compare each context. While difficult, this is vital information for business and governmental managers going forward. It’s just too much data to crunch on your own!

Manufacturing managers need help deciding where to focus their sustainability efforts for greatest impact, municipal and state managers need to know where to invest funds for impact, and consumers need help making the daily decisions that require more data than we can each process alone.  Pay attention to the increasing use of LCA by business and government leaders going forward, because we all need help making clear comparisons of performance to inform good decision-making.

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