What the shit is LCA

By now, I’m sure your earholes have been seduced by the guilt dissolving allure of words such as "eco" and "organic". I encourage you to disregard these terms, as non-viable constructs for determining the Earth-friendliness of your possessions. In fact, I invite you to employ a heavy dose of scepticism, recognising these terms as nothing more than a marketing ploy or straight-up wishful naivety. Just slide them into the pile with "diet" chocolate.

Today, lets get hectically immersed in Life Cycle Thinking {Thrivability Commandment 1.5} and explore the scandalous adventures of your things. For some, this may sound, frankly, boring as fuck. But for those who are driven by curiosity and seek to create an innovative and dynamic future, this is where your attention should be. The gritty, time consuming and highly detailed beast that is a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), will less likely be found celebrated publicly on a company website. Although, it really ought to be.

Life cycle thinking is a hard ball, even for the diligently conscientious amongst us. This is simply because the Life cycle approach involves a multitude of factors, including those out of the control of a product's creator. The conundrum also exists in the fact that, regardless of intentions, even the most positively aspiring new products still require resources. Check out the paper vs plastic debate as a great example.

Conundrums like the one above prompt us to consider what is really best, and the necessity of “stuff” at all. Even goods that have a seemingly innocent reputation present a pressure for extraction of raw materials and require a method of appropriate disposal.

Containing five major stages, an LCA is a scientific process that analyses the inputs, outputs and environmental impacts of a system across the whole life span. It maintains ISO standards (non-govt. International Organization of Standardization) and thanks to the decentralised behaviour of global industries, it is almost as complex as the relationships on Game of Thrones.

When did it become logical to farm cotton in India, dye it in America, then manufacture it in China, to post it to Australia for you to wear in Italy? This highly networked little bugger is also extremely sensitive to external factors like consumer location, in-country practices and seasonality.

Prepare for the five course knowledge banquet that ensues.

1. Extraction

Straight up, we are using way too much shit, far too quickly. With only five percent of the world’s population, the USA alone uses 30% of the world’s resources and creates 30% of the worlds waste. The dire effects of the pressure for rapid extraction is evident in the fact that less than four percent of the original forests in the USA still remain today. What is all that land being used for? Many things. There are currently 433 operating mines in Australia alone, blasting the Earth open and digging at an alarming rate to obtain the elements critical for our fast-paced, fuel dependent life.

2. Production & Manufacturing

There are 100’000 synthetic chemicals used in production today. Everything is effected in this process. Initially, the most vulnerable members in our society are impacted, those who work for companies engaged in questionable practices. The flow on effect from using synthetic chemicals is tremendous, impacting the world at large in two major ways: Firstly, something as simple as consumer product exposure (Product Off-Gassing: Worse than your farts) and secondly, through the chemical by-products that enter our atmosphere and disrupt global ecosystems. Even a beautiful symbol such as a snow flake in New York holds exquisite irony, in that its existence is possible only through the combination of cold air and particles. Which, thanks to atmospheric wind channels, these particles are comprised of pollution fresh from the USA's off-shore factories in China. Perhaps an attempt from Mother Nature to export back the damage.

3. Packaging & Distribution

It is common to receive online orders express posted from London, yet, what does that feat logistically entail? Globally, we still depend predominantly on non-renewables to fuel transport, therefore the kilometres accumulated by your products have a hefty impact upon our environment. It is almost virtually impossible to avoid. Unless you have nailed teleportation, or all steps of a products creation and use occur on the spot! Look at your wardrobe and take a moment to ponder. Considering a Boeing 747 uses approximately four litres of fuel per second, you can imagine what it burns through on a twenty three hour journey from the UK to Australia. On top of this, you have ships that handle roughly 90% of global trade, moving 11 billion tonnes of stuff each year. Ships have been found to be the most carbon-efficient mode of transportation, emitting roughly half the emissions as trains, one-fifth of truck emissions and one-fifteenth the emissions of an airplane, in accomplishing the same delivery.

4. Consumption & User Behaviour

Humans are serious consumers. Did you know that 99% of the stuff we harvest, mine, process, manufacture and distribute is trashed within the first 6 months of the products existence? Yes, you read correctly. Only 1% of products made are kept, with the other 99% of products disposed within the first twenty-six weeks of creation. This is a combination of obsolescence (an item becoming dysfunctional or unusable, like a phone that starts failing conveniently as your contract ends) and perceived obsolescence (where we are socially pressured to believe that last season's sneakers need replacing, purely based on their aesthetic failings). Which isn't a surprise considering the prevalence and power of media in modern culture. Today, we see more ads in a twelve month period, than people saw in their whole lifetime, just 50 years ago.

In addition to this, studies such as the Levi Strauss, Life Cycle of a Jean assessment demonstrate that the greatest negative impact is often attributed to the owner. Levi's found that the jeans require up to 3'781 litres of water, with 23% of consumption accounted for at the User stage, due to excessive washing. Fact: The level of bacteria in your jeans does not increase from the first twenty-four hours, even if you wear them daily and roll in pizza.

5. Disposal

150’000 tonnes of waste (including food, textiles, plastics and machinery), is generated annually by just a small town, like the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. In 2010/11, Australia collectively produced over 48 million tonnes of waste. This officially made us more prolific wasters per capita than the USA, Canada and New Zealand. Thankfully, Australia's recovery rate of 60% compares positively to most nations. Besides the UK and Germany, who have a well established recycling system, likely pressured to evolve due to population density and limited resources in these countries. Yet with the remainder of our annual waste still being dumped in landfill (essentially a big fucking hole in the ground), we have to face the obvious effects this pollution has to air, land, water and our climate. 

In the preferred instance of recycling, up-cycling, down-cycling or any kind of cycling (of the non lycra-wearing variety), the components of an item have the opportunity to be reinvented through future products.

An overview of the product life-cycle for the visually inclined:

In the perfect world, we would stop this madness completely and most likely take up Masanobu Fukuoka’s “do nothing” approach. Unfortunately, we are a long way off a life that looks like this. So what can we do?

As a consumer, we have the power to be more conscious of our buying power. If sustainability is incentivised, for success, businesses will have no option other than to improve their ecologically impact. By simply increasing our awareness of the absurd quantity and damage done by all that "stuff" out there, we can actively minimise unnecessary consumption, whilst becoming more strategic with our purchases. Become an activist with your cash and put it towards products and initiatives that promote a thriving planet through their design.

We are already starting to make it easier for you to fashionably give a fuck. When you have no choice but to dabble in the world of materialism, investigate the epic journey of your things and ask yourself if it is getting you closer or further away from a planet we can actually inhabit.

So, what happens next? Check out the scope on WTF is up with Recycling and WTF do you mean, Landfill covered in the next weekly fix.

A psychology obsessed, dive conservationist and business strategist. Charlie is a biophiliac on a mission to inspire intrinsic meaning in human-beings through a fascination with the complex systems of our universe.

Challenging the subjective norms we hold as a society with humour, she is an instigator behind VOX POPULI's mission to make it fashionable to give a fuck.