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Spotlight on Young Researchers: Taking disruptions into account in life cycle/sustainability assessment



Global supply networks are more complex than ever, and recent global events have shown how susceptible society is to unpredictable disturbances. Scientists are working to understand the effect disruptions have on the sustainability of productive systems with the goal to provide solutions to support decision-making.

A research project aiming to understand the effects that disruptions have on the sustainability of productive systems features the Peruvian fishmeal industry as case of study. This product uses anchoveta fish as main resource for its production.

Since Coca Cola published the first life-cycle oriented environmental study of one of his products in 1969, Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) has become the de facto methodology to quantify environmental impacts. It is widely used – from helping to label our ow-carbon bananas, to setting national policies regarding biofuels consumption.

Society’s increasing demand for conscious and sustainable choices has enabled academia to develop better methods and tools to study novel products and answer more complicated questions. This has enhanced the conventional LCA method introduced many years ago, especially due to the emergence of more sophisticated computational approaches.

Understanding what can be considered sustainable

“In my opinion, the main ongoing challenge is to provide robust and valid answers when society asks: What should I consider as sustainable? Incorporating new dimensions of sustainability into the assessment exercise is not trivial. Aspects like supply chain resilience, for instance, are still decoupled from the current view of sustainability,” explains LIST researcher Gustavo Larrea-Gallegos, who was introduced to sustainability research when studying road building and deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon during his bachelor and master studies in civil engineering.

Gustavo was introduced into sustainability research when studying road building and deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon during my bachelor and master studies. 

Some of society’s current inquiries go beyond the capacities for which LCA was initially conceived. A main challenge that researchers face is the difficulty of modelling systems that are dynamic or complex. An added challenge is that scarce information about some industries pushes studies to simplify models and to rely only on available data.

Forming a clear picture of the impact of disruptions

Our research aims to understand the effects that disruptions have on the sustainability of productive systems. We want to understand how companies re-adapt to cope undesired events and to quantify the environmental, social and economic consequences of these decisions.”

“We focus on developing methodologies 1) to model firms’ interactions in complex supply systems and 2) to include disruption-oriented indicators (e.g., resilience) into the sustainability assessment.”

“For the first case, we provide a new modelling tool where the network and companies interactions are simulated, so more complex questions can be addressed (e.g., behaviour-related). For the second case, our framework provides a different and more eclectic approach where sustainability is viewed as an emergent behaviour and more indicators can be evaluated.”

“Our work is strongly methodological, but we still apply our approach to the Peruvian fishmeal industry as a case of study. Just like with this important worldwide supplier, we believe that our approach can support decision making in other important industries.

Surveys and interviews were conducted with different stakeholders of the supply chain to model the system.

The team has been successful in developing a software (unreleased yet) to allow for the modelling of supply networks and is currently working on a proof of concept.

Gustavo Larrea-Gallegos is in the 3rd year of his AFR PhD at the Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment Group at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST).


On his research, in one sentence

“Studying the sustainability of complex adaptive systems like supply chains requires to consider modelling approaches that go beyond conventional analytical techniques.”

On his research, peer to peer

“Our project’s objective is to provide methodological development to include aspects of resilience in the sustainability assessment of supply networks. We use agent-based modelling (ABM) and network analysis to model the systems under the effects of disruptive events. For this, we focused on developing a complexity-driven sustainability assessment approach where resilience-oriented indicators (i.e., short-term impacts) and conventional long-term indicators can be included in the same decision exercise. This approach is leveraged on the nature of ABM, which allows us to have a bottom-up perspective of the emergence of sustainability, while observing the temporal evolution of the network.”

On why he chose research

“I was intrigued by research when studying road building and deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon. Since then, I have been fascinated about the question of how can society really achieve sustainability? This has led me now to focus all my interest on studying complex systems and seeing sustainability as an emergent behaviour. I chose LIST because I had excellent references about the group I work with now.”

On what he loves about science

“Learning is what I love the most, for sure. I find delight in being in constant learning and working on new ideas. It is even more appealing when I use this novel knowledge to build a narrative when working on a project. Thanks to science my career has involved working on engineering, sustainability, and now computational modelling. Isn’t that a privilege?”

On where he sees himself in 5 years

“This is very hard to say. My career has been drifting according to my curiosity and motivations of the moment. I would love to stay in science, especially because I work on a field that still requires a lot of research. Where would I be in 5 years? Only science knows.”

On mentors with an impact

“I would say that my master’s supervisor played a key role in my interest in research. In fact, he was the one who suggested LIST as first option for my PhD. Since then, I have met very rigorous researchers at LIST that are helping me in the task of taking my career to another level.”

On choosing Luxembourg for research

“To be honest, at the beginning, I was researching more about LIST than Luxembourg, so the country was not an important criterion in my decision. Afterwards, of course, I found very appealing the importance that the country gives to research. I think that it is an ideal place to do research because of the resources the Government provides, especially for young researchers. Another aspect that I could only figure out after arriving was how international is the research community. I really find beneficial this diversity of scholars working not only at LIST, but in the local academic community.”

Best poster winner in the conference Life Cycle Management 2021.

Photos provided by Gustavo Larrea-Gallegos

About Spotlight on Young Researchers

Spotlight on Young Researchers is an annual FNR campaign where we shine a Spotlight on early-career researchers across the world with a connection to Luxembourg. Over 100 features have been published since the first edition in 2016.

Browse them below!

Gustavo Larrea-Gallegos is in the 3rd year of his AFR PhD at the Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment Group at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST). © LIST