What is a life cycle assessment?

In this article we explain what a life cycle assessment is. We dive into goal and scope, inventory analysis and impact assessment, and the analytical framework.

What is a Life Cycle Assessment?

In this article we explain what a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is, how it works and why it is desirable to have it performed, for example by the Hedgehog Company. We also provide a bit of history, information about subsidy(s) and examples.

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) or Analysis, assesses the environmental effects associated with a product, process or service throughout its entire life cycle. The term ‘life cycle’ refers to the main activities of the life cycle of a product, service or process. From the extraction of raw materials needed to make the product, the manufacture, use and maintenance, to the final disposal or the link to a possible next cycle.

A LCA is a framework to answer the question: What environmental impact does an object have on the world? It is not an easy question to answer because there are so many factors involved. That is why LCA offers frameworks for measuring impact. In this way, the points where the environmental impact is large, called ‘hotspots’, can be found. The life cycle of an object (service, process or product) consists of 5 phases:

  1. (Extraction of) raw materials
  2. Production
  3. Transportation
  4. Use and maintenance
  5. Waste processing and/or link to the next ‘cycle’.


There are different models of an LCA. One way of considering the impact of an object is ‘cradle-to-cradle’, which revolves around circularity and thus limitation of resources (extraction and production), use (energy consumption, auxiliary materials) and disposal (re-use). and pour). The point is that all materials used after their life in one product can be usefully used for another product without loss of quality.

Cradle-to-grave life cycle assessment

A second way is ‘cradle-to-grave’ (from cradle to grave). In this theory you start with the ‘cradle’, namely the very first phase of the creation of an object, such as the raw materials. Measuring the impact ends with the ‘grave’, the final end stage of the product such as the processing of the waste.

Cradle-to-gate life cycle assessment

With cradle-to-gate, measuring the impact ends at the factory gate, i.e. the stage before it is transported to the consumer. It is a simplified version because it excludes, among other things, the use phase and waste phase. This makes the model suitable for situations where the purpose of the LCA is to map the production chain, or when data is still missing because it concerns the development of a product. Due to the reduced complexity, the LCA can also be calculated faster and cheaper.

Other models include gate-to-gate and well-to-wheel, but these are less common.


An LCA is a unique method because it covers all processes and emissions into the environment, from the extraction of raw materials to the final disposal of the product.

The information provided by an LCA provides the opportunity to make environmentally conscious choices in the design of a product or its further design. With the aim of minimizing the environmental impact. It contributes to a company’s sustainability strategy and can be used in internal and external communication.

Conducting an LCA prevents the shifting of environmental problems from one place to another. A decision maker gains insight into the entire system through the LCA rather than just information about a single process through a different focus of the investigation. For example, product A may seem like a better choice because it produces less waste water, but because not all impacts from the system have been investigated, information is missed. Product B has less waste water, but produces more cradle-to-grave environmental impact (for example, more chemical emissions). This knowledge ultimately leads to a different choice. This generates a tool to support integrated decision-making.


The methodology of a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) consists of four elements and is laid down in ISO standards 14040 and 14044.

1. Purpose & Scope

The purpose of an LCA is not only to collect data on the environmental impact, but also to be able to make decisions and choices based on this data. Therefore, the goal must be predetermined and the audience to whom the results are to be communicated must be taken into account.

It must also be decided against which impact categories the object is measured against, such as climate warming potential, depletion of the ozone layer, eco- or human toxicological effects or change in land use. Furthermore, the limits of the impact on the object are determined. An example; do we measure the impact of the object on a single area or type of organism and stop at the impact on workers, or also include the impact on their families in producing the process?

2. Inventory - Life Cycle Inventory Analysis (LCI)

The object’s data is collected and modeled. What inputs and outputs does the object have? Such as use of water, raw materials, transport, etc. This data comes from, for example, the gas and electricity bill or a purchase overview.

It is important in this step to look at the availability of any EPDs of raw materials and consumables. An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is a declaration of the environmental impact of a product that is drawn up on the basis of an LCA. You can therefore use LCAs as input for a subsequent LCA. An important note here is that the presence of an EPD does not necessarily mean that this product is also environmentally friendly.

3. Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA)

In the third phase, the contribution of the object’s data to the impact categories is assessed. So how does the collected data, for example transport to the factory, contribute to greenhouse gas emissions, and what impact does this have on the warming potential of our planet?

4. Interpretation

Interpretation of the results is done via ISO 14040:2006 and includes:

The interpretation is based on the values of the clients and the values of the stakeholders. The identification of the stakeholders has already been set up in the first phase. Now you ask the question of which stakeholders determine what level of impact is acceptable. It depends on the stakeholder whether something is labeled environmentally friendly or not.

The interpretation of the results ultimately leads to action. Because the hotspots of the object have become transparent, it is now possible to work on making it more sustainable. This can be done in various forms, such as product development, strategy development or a marketing plan. A summary of the method is shown in the figure below.


An LCA is not a new concept. It dates back to 1960 when consumers compared products, is product A better than product B? About twenty years later, it gradually became more important to include the total cycle of the product in the analysis, as the environmental impact is often not in the use of the product, but in the production, transport and the final phase. Over the years, an LCA has become a standardized method for determining the environmental impact of an object. Criticism of the LCA is that it contains no social impact. A ‘social LCA’ is currently being developed.



A carbon footprint is an inventory of all of the organization’s greenhouse gases expressed in CO2, using ISO 14064. It is a calculation of the company’s total greenhouse gas emissions for the past year. The difference with an LCA is that the carbon footprint measures the environmental impact based on a single impact category, namely greenhouse gas emissions. Unlike an LCA, other impact categories such as soil pollution and land use are not taken into account.


A simple example of what can be done with the data from a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is the substantiation for the choice between plastic, paper or glass cups at a festival. The cradle-to-cradle model seems to fit in nicely here, because the cups can probably be reused in the same form of use or as raw material.



Also for the order of UNBEGUN we made an LCA for their new product line with the cradle-to-grave method. A collection of laptop covers and bags made from old trailer tarpaulins. The purpose of the LCA was discussed in advance with UNBEGUN, in this case to provide insight into how much co2 has been saved by using old trailer tarpaulins. During the inventory, data was collected on, among other things, the number of products per month, transport of the products, packaging material and also the product itself (zipper, rubber logo, etc.). In the third phase, the contribution is made by the inputs and outputs to the impact categories, for example the contribution to ocean acidification. From the calculations of this LCA, it could be interpreted that the use of the sails saves 61,800 kilograms of CO2 equivalents, which means that the laptop sleeve has almost 20% less CO2 emissions than an average laptop sleeve.

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Saro, life cycle specialist, both boxing- and chess enthusiast (not at the same time) and a big fan of the Italian kitchen. His sustainability journey began at his bachelor years ago together with Joost and Philip. After a few years of LCA experience, he is ready to support companies in their transition towards sustainability. He knows best the added value of sustainable performance.

His mission is ensuring sustainability becomes the norm. In this way, he hopes he doesn’t have to explain to his aunt every time during family birthdays that sustainability is more than solar panels on the roof.

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