[Originally published in The Guardian Sustainable Business Blog.]

A recent international conference in France that I had the honour to chair provided a fascinating glimpse of how far Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) have come, and of their future potential.

For many professionals working in the sustainable development field, LCAs, tools that can be used to assess the environmental impacts of a product, process or service from design to disposal, are either seen as the vital DNA of sound sustainability decision-making, or a mud pit where techno-geeks wrestle it out – often inconclusively – over whose model better measures the real environmental footprint on a cradle to grave basis.

I came to the event with three commonly heard critiques firmly in mind:

• While LCAs are, by definition, data-rich science-based tools, they can be used (and some would argue are being used) to justify practically anything in sustainability.

• Broad-based LCAs are losing ground to narrower and more popular environmental sustainability indicators, such as total water use and greenhouse gas emissions.

• Managers often complain that LCAs are inevitably complex creatures that complicate decision-making by managers and consumers. Importantly, that they also ignore vital social impacts.

These questions were not, however, the direct focus of the 300 or so expert participants from more than 30 countries around the world. They had come to the event, hosted by the French non-profit organisation cd2e in Lille on 6-7 November, mainly to discuss methodologies, exchange research findings and to explore how to use LCA results to support real life decision-making.

In terms of notable trends, it was clear from discussions that regulation, or the prospect of it, is driving a new interest in LCAs.

Laws such as the 2011 French Grenelle regulation require mandatory LCA-based environmental product labelling. This has sparked a broad response in which businesses, software developers and audit service providers are working together to develop common assessment methodologies and tools and also assessing consumer response.

Over the last year, 168 businesses, ranging from major international firms (such as Oxylane, the owner of the Decathalon sports chain) to SMEs, have been involved in trialling approaches to collect, assess and use environmental data for labels.

Regulation has not been the only driver. A recent survey by WWF suggested that 88% of the French population wanted environmental labelling to be mandatory.

As the representative of a major Swedish multinational put it: “More environmental labelling is coming, whether we like it or not. We just want to make sure we’re best dressed when it happens.” His firm reported on work using the latest software applications to enable managers, retailers and customers to quickly profile the environmental footprint of individual products.

The continuing development of standards for LCAs, including ISO’s 14040 standard, is also helping to improve comparability and consistency in approach. A number of participants described efforts to develop new LCA standard but this news was not uniformly welcomed; business participants privately expressed concerns about the need for a more coherent regulatory and standards framework, not a more fractured one.

Of the three critiques listed above, the evidence was mixed – but on the whole encouraging.

There seemed to be broad recognition that LCAs are still open to being sliced and diced in many ways. On the whole, however, increased attention from regulators, independent auditors and company professionals is making it harder for LCAs to be abused. While genuine differences of methodology and data interpretation are inevitable and will persist, the trend was towards greater industry standardisation.

On the risks of ‘indicators du jour’, there seemed little chance of losing the baby with the bath water. LCAs traditionally played a key role in helping size up relative product impacts on energy, water use and on water pollution. LCA expertise, however, was being applied to an a growing set of indicators, depending on the sector and country concerned. While environmental impacts remain the primary focus, social impacts are now on the radar, as LCA work by the Brazilian sustainability leader Natura illustrated.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, it was clear that the use of apps has come to LCAs. A number of participants presented visually appealing software that enabled the user, whether manager or customer, to quickly compare the merits of different production choices or products. These apps offer the early prospect of ‘dashboard management’, where the data underpinning management decisions and public communication becomes more transparent and potentially seamless.

I came away from the conference convinced that LCAs were the beating heart of any company’s sustainability journey, and that standards and modern technologies were making them more accessible and relevant than ever.

However, to ensure their value, regulators, investors, consumers and other stakeholders have to take an active interest in the sustainability choices and trade-offs involved in product manufacturing decisions.

At the end of the day, like so many things, LCAs will only be as good as the societies that demand and use them.

Paul Hohnen is an Senior International Associate with ACCSR and Associate Fellow of Chatham House. Paul has been a diplomat, director of Greenpeace International and a director of the Global Reporting Initiative.