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Life cycle assessment: what is it?

A Life Cycle Analysis - often referred to as LCA - can empower decision-makers to choose the products, materials, and methods which are most environmentally friendly. Although conducting an LCA can be time consuming and resource-intensive, it offers invaluable insights into how design choices can mitigate climate challenges faced by organizations everywhere.

What is a life cycle assessment?

A Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the systematic evaluation of a product, process or service’s environmental impact throughout its entire life. This evaluation begins right at the beginning with a product’s resource extraction and continues on throughout the manufacturing and distribution stages, its day-to-day use and, finally, its end-of-life disposal or recycling.

Fundamentally a Life Cycle Assessment’s  goal is to quantify and assess the environmental burdens associated with a range of products or processes. For example this could include:

  • Energy consumption and resource depletion
  • Greenhouse gas emissions
  • Water usage
  • Waste generated by a product itself

By identifying hotspots and areas of improvement across the life cycle, LCAs help businesses and policymakers - as well as consumers - make informed decisions which can minimise negative environmental impacts and promote sustainability.


Let's consider the life cycle assessment of a plastic water bottle.

Raw material acquisition

This stage involves the extraction and processing of essential materials such as petroleum or natural gas, which will then be used to produce the plastic resin used in the bottle.


The plastic resin will be moulded and shaped into the water bottle. This will incorporate processes such as heating, shaping and labelling.


The bottled water is packaged and transported to distribution centres and then to retail outlets using trucks, ships or other modes of transportation.

Use phase

Consumers purchase the bottled water and use it for drinking, which will involve opening, consuming and potentially resealing the bottle.


After use the bottle is disposed of and will typically end up in a landfill, within recycling facilities, or as litter.

An LCA of the plastic water bottle quantifies these impacts at each individual stage and will assess the relevant environmental footprint, revealing opportunities for improvement and potentially leading to cost savings and a reduced environmental impact. 

What are the stages?

Every LCA includes four important stages which are universally applicable to any process or product, these are scoping, inventory, impact assessment and target setting. Let’s look at each of these in detail. 


All Life Cycle Assessments begin by clearly defining its goal and scope. This step is essential as it lays the foundation for the entire assessment, guiding the way in which subsequent data collection is analysed and interpreted. This clarifies the purpose and intended outcomes of the LCA. 

For example this could include determining whether the assessment is aimed at improving a product's environmental performance, comparing different alternatives, or providing information for decision-making. Within this, there need to be a few definitions of what is being assessed. Examples include: 

  • Functional Unit  - A systematic unit of analysis is defined for comparison, ensuring consistency throughout the LCA. For example this could be per unit of product or per unit of energy produced.
  • System Boundaries  - Establishing the limits of the life cycle to be assessed, including which stages of the product's life cycle will be included (e.g., from cradle to grave, cradle to gate, etc.) and which environmental impacts will be considered.
  • Data Requirements - Data needed for the assessment is identified, including inputs (e.g., raw materials, energy) and outputs (e.g., emissions, waste) at each stage of the life cycle.


The inventory stage provides the foundation for all subsequent phases by allowing the quantification and characterization of the expected environmental impacts associated with the product or process. 

Here, the focus is on collecting and quantifying data regarding all the inputs and outputs associated with the life cycle of a product or process - for example, raw material extraction, resource and water use, plus secondary and ancillary inputs (such as packaging materials and maintenance operations).

Importantly this can help stakeholders understand where environmental burdens occur, identify opportunities for improvement and pre-empt problems before they become too costly.

Impact assessment

An impact assessment phase quantifies and describes the effects of activities throughout the examined life cycle against various environmental indicators. 

This is an essential phase of the LCA process and typically involves selecting relevant impact categories, for example waste generation or resource depletion, and characterising the available data to evaluate its effect. 

Impact assessments are geared towards assisting stakeholders in understanding the environmental consequences of their decisions and pinpointing areas for intervention, so as to mitigate negative impacts or enhance overall sustainability.

Target setting

Target setting within an LCA involves establishing specific objectives or goals based on the findings of the previous phases of the assessment. This phase, which is usually the final step in the assessment, typically includes a number of steps:

  • Interpreting the Life Cycle Assessment results and data
  • Identifying specific improvement opportunities and weaknesses
  • Establishing clear and realistic objectives
  • Monitoring and reporting progress of steps taken in both the short and long term
  • Integrating defined targets into business strategy
  • Continuous assessment and Improvement by regularly monitoring and reporting on the progress of steps taken in both the short and long term

Overall effective target setting involves leveraging the insights gained from the entire assessment to establish meaningful, and realistic, objectives for environmental improvement.

Why LCAs are important

Life cycle assessments are an essential tool for the transition to a greener future. Alongside promoting sustainability initiatives, by highlighting waste saving opportunities and optimising processes, LCA’s also present a number of other important benefits. 

Eco-labels, environmental product declarations (EPDs), and other forms of product certification based on LCAs help consumers make more informed purchasing decisions and support sustainable consumption patterns.

LCA’s can help businesses stay ahead of evolving policies and regulations. Compliance with environmental regulations often involves assessing and mitigating the environmental impacts of a range of activities, and LCAs can provide a standardised methodology for doing so. LCAs also help companies identify opportunities for reducing costs and enhance efficiency. 

How Minimum can help

Minimum can help organizations to understand their existing carbon output, and create plans to mitigate climate related risks in the future.  Our Emissions Data Platform seamlessly collects and processes emissions data from every corner of your organization and supply chain - no matter the format. Making it the ideal platform for emissions audits and all-round business intelligence. 

Learn more about how Minimum's Emission Data Platform can help to power you all the way to Net Zero today.

FAQs about LCA assessments

Are there different types of life cycle assessments?

As Life Cycle assessments are becoming commonplace across a huge cross section of industries it's important to ensure they are adaptable to different goals and different levels of available information . So of course there is a range of different types of LCAs which vary based on their specific scope, objectives and methodologies. Some of the most common are:

  • Attributional LCA - quantifies the environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product's life cycle.
  • Consequential LCA - examines the environmental impacts of potential changes in a system, focusing on the broader consequences.
  • Prospective LCA - evaluates the potential environmental impacts of new technologies or products before they are fully developed.
  • Retrospective LCA - analyzes the environmental impacts of existing technologies or products.
  • Screening LCA - provides a simplified, preliminary analysis of a product's environmental impact, using less detailed data to identify key areas of concern.
  • Sectoral LCA - evaluates the overall environmental impacts within a specific sector, examining the collective effects of various products, processes, or services

Are they mandatory?

Life Cycle Assessments are not yet universally mandatory, although for certain products, such as all buildings constructed since January 2023, UK law requires an LCA to be conducted. 

As well as this, ​​the adoption of voluntary LCA’s are becoming more commonplace as regulatory requirements, evolving industry standards and forward thinking corporate initiatives continue to develop.