I’ve been struck recently by the way that many lifecycle analyses on products aren’t quite cutting the mustard.
Take, for example, the idea that each item of clothing reused means that primary production of an item has been avoided – something I’ve often seen assumed. But to claim a 1:1 relationship here is unwarranted by evidence, and intuitively it seems to be questionable economics and dodgy at the level of social psychology.
How many people who buy a second hand item of clothing would otherwise have bought a similar item new? Some, perhaps, but surely not all. Isn’t it just as likely they would have bought nothing at all – or in an age of conspicuous consumption, have bought something quite different that could fulfil the same display function?
It is probably unwise to make significant policy decisions on the strength of models where all too often, faced with the difficulty of justifying bold assumptions, people simply don’t try to.
Bad behaviour data
Part of the problem is that companies developing product specific LCAs have plenty of data on production processes, but relatively little of the consumer behaviour information they need. But these studies don’t make clear how influential the data they select is in determining the outcome, and certainly don’t highlight what is missing. These product specific studies are then being used more widely to determine policy outcomes without the data gaps being properly considered.
Lifecycle analyses can only be as good as the data and assumptions they rely on. If Government is going to increasingly rely on the output from these studies to inform policy development , we need them to really capture the counterfactuals in re-use and recycling. Some primary research is required that examines people’s consumer behaviour together with their changing attitudes to products.
Given the amount of publicity work that Government has put into highlighting and discouraging waste, it would be hoped that we would see some change in patterns of reuse. Without such data, responsible producers of LCAs can only highlight the shortcomings of the information available and indicate what would be required to give a fuller picture.