A matter of trust

There have been some interesting posts in the Pre mailing list about how to deal with confidentiality when performing LCA studies, expecially in comparative context.

Everybody who does LCA knows this issue. Companies and organisations of all sizes and types are usually reluctant to - or direclty against - sharing publicly the inventory data about their processes and activities. For example the amount of energy or chemicals needed to produce a unit of product. The reason that I hear the most is maintaining competitive advantage. They don’t want competitors to know what they do and how.

OK, fair enough.

But. Are these concerns reasonable or are producers magnifying the problem? Indeed publicly available inventory data on production activities can be a great help for LCA researchers! And for the general public to keep producers accountable for their claims. But do competitors really care about life cycle inventories? How many in the general public will actually take the time to check them in detail? How much valuable and practical is this rather aggregated information for reproducibility? And for process understanding1? And, in the worse case, for scooping company secrets?

The problem for me starts when organisations concerned with confidentiality are very eager to put their LCA results out in the open. Because I feel that LCA nowadays is unfortunately 10% a tool for process improvement and decision support, and 90% a tool for marketing of decision already been taken.

In cases of comparative assertions, ISO standards require that a panel reviews the LCA and there the common solution is to make the data available for the review panel, often under non-disclosure agreement, and to exclude the confidential data from the final published LCA report. However, for Environmental Product Declarations and other LCA-based reports on product environmental performance, not necessarily comparative, there is AFAIK no requirement to disclose any of the underlying data.

This is why I find the confidentiality issue a very controversial one. I do understand that producers might have legitimate confidentiality concerns, and a justified need to maintain competitive advantage and to keep details on their process hidden from competitors. But at the same time, if a producer wants to show to the world how “low-impact” they are at producing something, and to compare their product with other products (either directly or indirectly by letting consumers do it), then it seems to me rather absurd that they are not willing to share data about said production process.

When the data are not shared, they are basically saying: I am good, trust me.

But I don’t want to trust.

So either you want to keep confidentiality, or you want to go public with green claims. You can’t have your cake and eat it too… can you? The solution with LCA reviewers having full access to the model and data under non-disclosure agreement is a good starting point. But still a lot of trust is at work here, and it leaves out many cases. A much more virtuous approach should be to share at least the minimum amount of data needed to reproduce the results of the model, and ideally more…

The idea that we as a society should allow anybody to publish green claims without providing supporting evidence sounds, in all honesty, quote bogus to me.


  1. Anybody who has tried to reproduce LCA results starting from published data knows what I am talking about - this is a painful process.