With ALCAS celebrating its 22nd birthday and the 11th ALCAS conference coming up in July, it feels like a good time to sit down with Tim Grant. One of the early leaders in LCA, Tim founded the environmental impact company Lifecycles two decades ago. He was the founding President of ALCAS and has been a member of the Board until recently. He has been a long-time advocate for LCA in Australia and an active supporter of the industry, ALCAS and the ALCAS conferences.
We spoke to Tim about the evolution of Lifecycles, ALCAS and LCA in general over his long career and his thoughts on where we need to head next.
You’ve had a 25-year career in LCA, that has spanned a great deal of change in the sector. What do you think have been the biggest changes you’ve seen in that time?
I started working in LCA at RMIT in about 1997/98. Then it was very much an academic pursuit. There were a few minor activities at the industry level, but the focus was on large policy studies. That has really flipped. Particularly in Australia, LCA is very much a tool used in commercial applications.
So these days, most LCA practitioners are in the private sector and we actually lack a body of LCA practitioners in the academic space. In particular, the university sector is not as strong in process, ISO-standard LCA, at least in part because many of the good people, myself included, were drawn out to the private sector.
In many ways, this is a sign of success for the sector. We always wanted LCA to be professionalised and recognised by the business sector. We wanted data, systems, labelling programs, and star ratings to drive the development of LCA.
But success never looks quite like you expect. While the big policy, economy wide LCA work still has a strong foothold in academia, the shift to private practices has meant that the university sector has few LCA specialists who can guide research and support PhD students.
As LCA has become more widely accepted in the private sector, how has the interaction with business clients evolved?
LCA is often about answering questions. What’s changed is the questions clients are asking. They are much deeper and more strategic. Previously, the questions were quite shallow. “We've got a product. We're going to recycle it. Give us an LCA to demonstrate that recycling is better than what we used to do.” Now businesses are improving their circularity, changing materials, and going carbon zero. So LCA is being applied to a much broader strategic set of questions.
Our work is more highly valued precisely because we are integrated with core company strategies and direction. In the old days, we’d have one project champion who was struggling to get a budget and would ring up to see if we had a student that might do the work for free. But now, when we are applying LCA to a top-level circular economy strategy, for example, there’s whole-of-organisation involvement, senior management is paying attention and our professional advice is valued.
After all these years, what aspect of LCA work are you still most passionate about?
The thing that gets me the most excited is the experience of seeing someone get their first understanding of what LCA can do. That wow factor when someone sees a product system they thought they knew and suddenly all these layers behind it are revealed. It’s like taking the red pill in the Matrix. You suddenly see this world behind the world that you’ve always known. Another world of environmental dynamics, pressures, impacts and benefits that you hadn't noticed before. And once you've seen it, you can't un-take the red pill. Watching people go through that is amazing.
You were involved with ALCAS from the beginning. Can you tell us about the development of the organisation?
When I was still working at RMIT, we had a roundtable at UNSW, started by Leanne Philpot. We started getting people together to discuss LCA developments on an informal basis. And we did that for a couple of years and then decided to formalise the group. We wrote a constitution and registered the organisation in July 2001.
As with any small organisation, the last 22 years has been a real slog. Everyone is busy and there have been ups and downs in membership. We’ve never had any major funding. But ever so quietly by sheer force of will, ALCAS has created a bunch of institutional products that are now the foundation of the Australian LCA industry. The Australasian EPD program, the LCA Certified Practitioner program, the AusLCI database, and most recently the Lifecycle Carbon Certified Practitioners program. These are all major assets.
Have those assets helped to ensure that business and government recognise the specialist expertise of LCA professionals?
Yes, definitely. In the early days, there were some internal differences of opinion, and that probably worked against the profession as a whole. But now we’ve coalesced around some rigorous standards and approaches. That has led to our profession being recognised as having mature methods. Clients know that they aren’t going to get a different answer from every professional in the field. You might get slightly different approaches and there are different domains of LCA that approach things differently. But in the construction sector, for example, the rules are now pretty clear. Practitioners know what they are meant to do, and clients know what they are going to get.
Lifecycles is sponsoring the upcoming ALCAS conference. What value do you think these conferences add to the LCA community?
The conferences always bring a real swell of collaboration and connection. When you work in a specialised field it’s great to physically get together and nerd-out on topics you can’t talk to anyone else about. It’s great to connect to different industry players. And a big thing is it brings the student population in contact with a professional industry they often don’t even know exists.
This next conference is particularly exciting being the first post-COVID. Everything now is different on a substantive level. Even at the time of the last conference, we were fringe. We may not be mainstream yet, but we’re certainly in huge demand. It’s a pivot point.
As a profession, we need to keep growing and rise to new challenges. Otherwise, another less-qualified sector will jump in and produce suboptimal solutions. The conference connects us and helps us to rise to these challenges.
What role would you like to see ALCAS play in the future?
First and foremost, I see ALCAS playing a governance role in the profession. Things like certification programmes and labelling programmes are critical. The organisation may need to step back from doing things, like AusLCI and the Australasian EPD Programme, and moves to a higher plane, setting rules and providing guidance for all data projects and EPD programmes so that we have a more consistent approach across the country and internationally. We certainly did the right thing creating and nurturing these programmes but its an exploding market of approaches out there and ALCAS could be co-ordinating consensus rather than just being one player.
The other thing I’d like to see is more thought leadership. We have new methodologies and buzzwords appearing all the time: circular economy, carbon zero, science-based targets. I’d like to see position papers from ALCAS on how LCA fits in with these new directions so that we can influence the way these evolve. I think our biggest challenge is to find the energy and resources to do that so we can ensure that appropriate (often dull) evidence-based measurement doesn’t get overtaken by shiny new ideas.
Tim Grant is the Director of Lifecycles, Australia’s premium LCA and sustainability firm – which is marking its 20th birthday in July 2023. Lifecycles' mission is to make LCA thinking more widely available through new training programs such as Lifecycles Lab and streamlined LCA tools including PIQET. For more information on Lifecycles check out their website and LinkedIn.