However, we must also recognize the limitations of LCAs and only apply their findings in appropriate ways. Nearly all LCAs rely on assumptions (e.g. greenhouse gas emissions of fertilizer or process additives) for some data points, and methodologies and boundaries can differ among LCAs. When findings from a specific LCA are broadly applied to general categories of material, operations, or products without taking into account differences in inputs (such as pesticides or fertilizers), conditions (such as irrigated or non-irrigated), or other factors (such as type of energy),then LCAs could potentially result in more harmful choices by decision makers or consumers.
For example, consumers and business leaders alike commonly refer to cotton as a thirsty crop and as a pesticide-intensive crop, and in some parts of the world it has had very damaging impacts—both depleting and contaminating water bodies. Cotton’s contribution to the tragic depletion and contamination from agriculture runoff of the Aral Sea is a perfect illustration of the damaging effects that the crop can have. The truth is, though, that cotton is especially adapted to semi-arid and arid environments. Forty-seven percent of cotton growing regions are entirely rain fed.
As for the impression that cotton requires intensive pesticides, this impression stems from an outdated 1988 statistic saying that cotton uses 11 percent of the world’s pesticides. When you look at today’s data you won’t come to such a strong conclusion. Cotton’s share by value of global pesticide consumption declined to 6.8 percent in 2008.
Developing business strategies across all of cotton based on these two bits of (mis)information is not advisable. Cotton grown in rain-fed regions with limited fertilizer applications would have very different impacts.
The larger concern I have with LCAs is that they only tell half the story—the story of negative environmental impacts. We should also be weighing the benefits of certain materials or operations. Consider the following statistics on cotton’s positive social benefits and how they illustrate its potential to lift people out of extreme poverty—an important goal for all corporate responsibility strategies.
 International Trade Centre, Cotton and Climate Change: Impacts and Options to Mitigate and Adapt, 2011. http://www.intracen.org/Cotton-and-Climate-Change-Impacts-and-options-to-mitigate-and-adapt/
 International Cotton Advisory Committee, Fact Sheet on Pesticide Use in Cotton Production, April 2012. https://www.icac.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/seep_pesticides_facts1.pdf