To transition the world to a sustainable future, it is essential to quantify the impacts of products, activities, and companies. Not just on one level, but on the environmental, social and economic levels together. How do the internet of things (IoT), real-time monitoring, Industry 4.0 and big data factor into this challenge? These exciting data innovations have the potential to revolutionize the way life cycle assessment (LCA) is used in the sustainability transformation.

The data challenge within LCA

LCA is an important tool to quantify impacts that empower consumers and businesses to make more sustainable choices. It supports environmental footprinting, environmental product declarations, carbon accounting, and many other initiatives. However, LCA relies on a solid foundation of data. The more specific the data, the higher the quality of the results. Ideally, you can use highly transparent supply chains and collaborative data sharing between suppliers and their customers.

If you can’t get first-hand data about suppliers and usage, you have to fall back on secondary or background data. The problem with general background data is that it’s usually an average across both strong and weak performers, which skews the results. Poor performers seem more sustainable than they are, because their poor performance is masked by an industry average that includes more sustainable peers. Conversely, the performance of sustainable leaders is penalized by data that includes the poor performers.

Data innovations will be key to helping businesses gather data from their supply chain. They will allow companies to achieve more accurate LCA results. In addition, the clarity of actual data will incentivize suppliers to improve their environmental performance.

Technology unlocks change

Data is becoming increasingly abundant. Emerging technologies such as the internet of things (IoT), Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence, blockchains, and big data infrastructures can handle growing workloads. These technologies are bringing more data to the ecosystem faster and at higher resolution than ever before. The format of digital data streams enables automation and advanced analytics that can massively scale up LCA without dramatically increasing human workload.

The potential is huge:

  • Creating new markets for data
  • Opening up carbon trading markets
  • More easily achieving compliance
  • Doing due diligence to verify the superior environmental performance of front-runners

Data streams from automated sensors offer an unprecedented opportunity to deepen our quantification of environmental impacts in LCA. They will speed up sustainable transformation and help users make the right choices to reduce their footprint and optimize their business operations.

Real-time sensor data from factories

What would this look like in real life? PRé Sustainability recently co-developed a digital platform to link data from IoT technologies with real-time LCA information for four manufacturing companies. This was part of the EU-funded ECOFACT project.

The companies installed sensors in their factories that continuously monitor performance. The data from these sensors is fed into a digital platform that links to the SimaPro API. Within the SimaPro platform, the data stream feeds into an LCA framework, where it’s analyzed in near-real-time to provide specific, rapid and high-resolution sustainability guidance.

The high-quality findings of this study can be used to optimize factory operations, saving time and money while reducing the factory’s environmental footprint. The fact that this study used leading-edge technologies and data innovations is a critical part of its success.

Investing in the future of LCA

The opportunities for data innovation in LCA are massive. By harnessing leading-edge technology and data, we can help our clients and partners reach sustainability targets faster and with more transparency. PRé is expanding SimaPro to accept new data streams and formats. We’re also investing in strong data governance that ensures a stable, high-quality experience for our SimaPro users.

With this investment, we hope to make it easier than ever to bring high-quality data into the LCA ecosystem. This will create value for database providers who can go to market faster. SimaPro users will have access to more data at higher quality. Everyone across the SimaPro ecosystem will benefit from increasingly transparent, robust, and actionable results.

Kimberly Bittler, Database team lead PRé Sustainability