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WD-40 Company Shares Insights on O-LCA’s Role in its Impact Reduction Efforts

Organizational LCA Case Studies, Part 1:

A Household Brand Name Share Insights on O-LCA’s Role in its Impact Reduction Efforts

man applying can of WD-40 product to lawnmower blade
Photo credit: WD-40 Company

No matter the size of your company, achieving your sustainability goals requires awareness of where impacts occur — specific operational and supply chain areas that can be targeted for measurable impact reduction.

Uncovering this type of knowledge is the primary goal of Organizational Life Cycle Assessment (O-LCA), which applies life-cycle analysis principles on a macro scale. We asked clients who’ve recently conducted O-LCAs to discuss their motivation, the process, and the outcomes, and share advice for companies considering an O-LCA of their own; we’re honored to present this first installment featuring the WD-40 Company, makers of a range of products including their iconic multi-purpose product.

If your organization wants better visibility into its impacts, attend our free one-hour introduction to O-LCA course on November 16, 2022 — learn more.

Setting Baselines, Exploring Options

Nearly five years ago, driven by a desire to do the right thing and respond to multiple stakeholders interested in improving environmental impacts of the company, WD-40 Company embarked on a cross-regional, cross-functional environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiative.

The first step was to identify relevant activities, principles, and methods that the company had been following for decades, but hadn’t communicated externally. Then came a materiality assessment to formally evaluate sustainability-related opinions and priorities of employees, stockholders, directors, leaders, vendors, customers, and consumers. This enabled the organization to focus attention on issues that mattered most to stakeholders and set the stage for gathering of useful new data.

A screening LCA of the company’s flagship consumer product, the ubiquitous WD-40 ® Multi-Use Product in its largest market, the U.S., was followed up with an O-LCA in 2021, expanding the research to all products and operations globally. Those results allowed the company to establish its baseline greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), and go on to conduct scenario modeling studies to look for possible avenues of achieving emission and environmental impact reductions.

The initial product-oriented assessment provided good momentum going into the O-LCA, notes Stan Sewitch, WD-40 Company’s prior VP for global organization development, who was the team leader for the ESG program from 2018 to 2021. The results of the materiality assessment and the initial product LCA showed “broad and deep support from all stakeholder segments for going down the path of ESG,” he explains. “The company’s leadership was fully aligned with the need to measure, analyze, and evaluate methods of reductions, report to our stakeholders, and work towards reductions in emissions.”

Applying O-LCA Findings

The O-LCA has advanced that broader process, says Sewitch: “Before we could even begin examining impact reduction methods, we knew we needed to measure and report our total carbon footprint, and establish a baseline for reduction targets. We also needed to understand which impact sources were under our direct ability to influence and which were not. And we needed to know the major contributors of negative environmental impact related to the product components.”

Perhaps most importantly, Sewitch says the O-LCA scenario analyses were “foundational” for the development of potential strategic actions for impact reduction. These potential options included use of plant-based ingredients rather than petroleum distillates for the flagship product, and changes to the aerosol format of primary packaging.

The potential actions were evaluated by plugging them into the analytical “engine” developed during the O-LCA process, explains Sewitch, and yielded some surprising results. For example, at the screening level, the current formula for WD-40 ® Multi-Use Product outperformed the plant-based formula in five out of six impact areas, including GHG emissions. The packaging research found that use of recycled steel or aluminum would reduce impacts, but also brought home the fact that marketplace availability of adequate quantities of recycled materials is largely a function of regulatory requirements for increased recycling (particularly important for aerosol cans) and therefore outside the company’s control.

These findings have helped guide thinking about new alternatives, including evaluation of other plant-based materials for availability, cost and performance, and exploration of additional can material options.

“There’s value in investigating these to determine what type of reductions we might be able to achieve by actions within our control,” says Sewitch. “The scenario modeling studies were extremely important in saving time, money, and dedication of talent to alternatives that might have seemed intuitively logical to pursue but turned out to not provide the expected reductions given the current state for those alternatives. Without having completed the O-LCA, we would not have had the analytical tools to properly evaluate our options.”

Advice for Your O-LCA

It’s worth noting that WD-40 Company’s O-LCA was part of a larger strategic initiative, which helped set clear goals and expectations for the analysis. The company also found enthusiasm for participation among employees, with the effort engaging about a dozen volunteers from a global base of about 500 employees, who devoted an average of 50 – 250 hours annually, says Sewitch.

One challenge was obtaining upstream data. “Obtaining data from our supply chain partners in the blending and filling functions was more difficult in some regions than others,” notes Sewitch. “Where we could get data, we did, and when we couldn’t we used proxies. Going forward we’ll need more direct data gathering and fewer proxies.”

As for specific advice for those considering an O-LCA, Sewitch comments, “Learn more about the specific data elements required and design a plan for obtaining that information, before committing to the project and engaging with an external firm. Make sure you have a dedicated team that’s committed to supporting the process of completing the O-LCA; this was critical to our success in finishing the study on time. If it’s your first O-LCA, don’t invest in expensive software or platforms for data collection. Wait until you’re sure you’ll need to do multiple studies over multiple years. Also, collecting the data ourselves gave us an education that will allow us to better evaluate software platforms we might consider.”

Ready to learn more about O-LCA? Join our FREE hour-long introduction to O-LCA — learn more or register now

We will be sharing more firsthand O-LCA insights in upcoming installments of this series.