Let down the barriers sometimes, it may turn out better than you think.

By Ulf Sonesson, Associate Professor, Research and Business Development Manager at RISE, Agriculture and Food

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the importance of occasionally “pushing oneself out of their comfort zone,” as this allows for a broader perspective. It can be challenging; when faced with new insights, significant steps often need to be taken to translate these insights into action and new perspectives. Throughout my career, I have primarily worked on evaluating the environmental performance of products and production systems within the agricultural and food supply chain. This has mainly involved life cycle assessments (LCA) of various aspects. The common thread has always been quantifying emissions and resource consumption and converting them into potential environmental impacts. Early in my career, I encountered valid criticism for LCA’s omission of crucial environmental aspects, while my LCA colleagues and I were hesitant to include environmental aspects where the methodology was immature.

More recently, I have encountered another principled approach, something called Multicriteria Analysis (MCA). The situation arose when working on developing future supply chains, realizing that we lacked technical data (as these were future systems) and needed to encompass the truly broad definition of sustainability. We began searching for quantification methods, but it was clear that this was not a viable path. It would require much more time than we had and, more importantly, likely would not yield meaningful results. Fortunately, we had recently hired someone with a doctorate in MCA. After a long coffee break and subsequent meetings, we decided to test the methodology on our supply chains. Without delving into details, MCA starts by listing the sustainability areas deemed relevant for the study. Then stakeholders are asked about their importance relative to each other, and finally, a number of “domain experts” are asked to rate the different solutions for the supply chains under evaluation. These assessments are processed statistically, resulting in an overall sustainability index for each studied chain, which is further broken down into the contributions of the various indicators to the total. Thus, we work with a combination of assessments from different experts and stakeholders, which is very far from my safe LCA where we deal with “real numbers.”

The conclusion is that after some reluctance, I have been forced to reconsider, and the message is that it was indeed valuable. It’s not that I have abandoned everything I’ve done before, but by being forced to reassess my entrenched views, I have gained new tools that strengthen the utility of my old tools. By first sorting out what is significant and minor with the help of MCA, a more targeted LCA can then be conducted, which can be delimited and thus become both resource-efficient and of high quality. The results are much better, and we avoid discussions about everything that is NOT included in the LCA. Of course, further investigations are needed in other areas, such as costs or occupational safety, but similar to LCA, the platform becomes clearer.

So my lesson is that it is essential to sometimes question the working methods and techniques that have been the basis of one’s entire career. Not to discard anything but to strengthen and develop our shared toolbox. I see this as entirely necessary to build the knowledge and understanding required given all the challenges we face.