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The Origins of LCA: The Impact of SETAC Books

June 13, 2022 | Insights,

This is the second blog in a series exploring the foundations and future roles of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs). Caroline Gaudreault, Anthesis LCA Service line lead, interviews Jim Fava, Executive Director at Anthesis, to explore how the earlier efforts by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) were leveraged to further advance LCA methodology and applications.

As we shared in our first blog, several key SETAC LCA workshops helped establish the scientific and technical foundation for modern-day LCA. The output from those initial foundational meetings culminated in the publication of several books, including:

Free copies of these SETAC books can be found by clicking the above links.


Development of ISO LCA Standards

In our first blog, you described how you and SETAC played key roles in developing the foundation for the LCA methodology. Can you discuss how the SETAC books were leveraged for the development and uptake of LCA? Let’s start with the influence that the SETAC resources and LCA books had on The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) LCA standards.

The ISO develops and publishes International Standards on a variety of topics. The ISO standards are likely the most recognised and applied standards globally. In the early 1990s, ISO formed a technical committee to develop environmental management standards; Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) was identified as one of the potential topics. Because I played a key role in the development of the SETAC LCA books, I was asked to chair an international group of LCA experts to make recommendations on whether ISO should develop LCA standards.  The group’s members came from countries who were part of the ISO process, and they recommended that ISO develop international standards on LCA. The SETAC Pellston workshop books, particularly “Guidelines for Life-Cycle Assessment: A ‘Code of Practice’”, were used as a foundation for the ISO standards.

The Three Phases of LCA

Can you elaborate on what it is from the SETAC books that still represent the foundation of contemporary LCA?

While knowledge of and consensus on the practice of LCAs has evolved (the ISO standard setting process and newer publications reflect current scientific thinking and practical experience on the subject), the foundational frameworks developed by SETAC Pellston Workshops hold fast. Several key advances to the LCA methodology developed as part of the SETAC process are still foundational to LCA today.

The SETAC books argue that complete life cycle assessments should be composed of three separate but interrelated phases: life-cycle inventory analysis, life cycle impact assessment, and life cycle improvement assessment. These three components are still the three main LCA phases according to ISO.  During the ISO process it was recognised that once the inventory and impact results were generated, there was more to their application than ‘improvement’.  As a result, “life cycle improvement analysis” was modified to “life cycle interpretation”.

The Goal and Scope Definition (G&SD) phase added by the SETAC process was included in the ISO process for developing the LCA standards. The G&SD phase defines the study’s basic requirements and expectations (e.g., purpose, functional unit, boundary conditions, data quality, impacts and methodology, and intended applications).

Additionally, the development of “characterisation factors” as modifiers of physical flows to create a set of indicators for potential adverse consequences across multiple impact categories was a key aspect of the SETAC books. This has remained at the core of connecting product attributes to environmental implications today.

SETAC Partners with UNEP

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP)/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative is a public-private, multi-stakeholder partnership enabling the global use of credible life cycle knowledge by private and public decision makers. The LCI will be celebrating its 20-year anniversary this year. How did SETAC come together with UNEP?

Once the first series of ISO LCA standards were finalised in 2000, there was a desire to accelerate the understanding and application of the newly standardised LCA methodology globally. Leaders in Europe in both the SETAC and ISO processes approached UNEP, who liked the idea but wanted to make sure it was a global effort. I was approached by a director of UNEP since I also had SETAC and ISO experience. We reached an agreement that I should get involved by representing SETAC. The UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative (LCI) was launched in Prague in 2002. I served as Co-Chair of the LCI representing SETAC. The LCI is still active (now called Life Cycle Initiative) and plays a key role in advancing the development and use of LCA globally.

The technical framework established by SETAC is still in existence and is a key component of today’s LCA.

A Credible Methodology

How do you see the previous efforts by SETAC and ISO being applied in today’s LCA practise?

Initially, there was scepticism around how the results of LCA could be communicated. But as the tool was used, the suppliers of the LCA information and users of that information learned how to use and convey the results. In this context, the ISO LCA standards established LCA as a credible and globally accepted methodology. The SETAC LCA books, the people who had developed them, and the application of the SETAC Pellston process continued to advance the scientific foundation for LCA.  The technical framework established by SETAC is still in existence and is a key component of today’s LCA.

The application of the ISO standards makes LCA more valuable in helping organisations understand the impacts of products over their life cycle because it increases their credibility by assuring everyone uses the same general approach, although there is still quite a bit of flexibility in how they are applied. Some historical and current examples of useful LCA applications include:

  • Governments use LCA to inform policies related to management of products/materials (e.g., USEPA renewable fuel standard, Japan 3R programme, European Commission Single Market for Green Products Initiative, etc.)
  • LCA is extensively used in the building sector (e.g., LEED and BREEAM includes LCA criteria, there is an extensive market for LCA-based environmental product declarations (EPDs))
  • Companies experiment with and many have adopted LCA for designing more sustainable products (e.g., JnJ, GE, Microsoft, Mattel, RB, BASF, P&G, Unilever, to name a few)



The Importance of SETAC Education

Do you think the SETAC books should be part of LCA education, and if so, why? Also, how did you see that the teaching of LCA evolved over time with the publication of the ISO standards and uptake by governments and industry?

Yes, I do think the early SETAC books, their learnings and advancement to LCA methodology should be included in LCA education.  LCA education often focuses on what, why, and how to conduct an LCA.  When we posted the digital availability for the SETAC early books recently, we received over 12,000 views. Many of the LCA practitioners were not aware of their existence since they had been out of print for many years.  Feedback was most positive as to the quality of the materials and explanation of the LCA methodology.  While it is not necessary for extended materials, students of LCA should be aware of the pre-modern LCA days and the influence of SETAC in the LCA methodology advancement.

LCA education, particularly at the university level, was initiated in Europe. Now universities around the world teach LCA and its application to design. Advanced LCA degreed professionals are graduating regularly.

It is important to teach the methodology and the considerations needed to successfully understand, complete, and apply the LCA results. A greater focus in LCA education should be on examples of how LCA can be applied to various applications (e.g., design, procurement, policy making). LCA education should be adapted for use within schools representing the applications (e.g., business, engineering, and design schools.

We have made progress, but greater collaboration is needed among schools within a university to provide both curricula related on how to conduct LCAs and how the results should be applied to create sustainability and business values.

In this second blog of our series of blogs on the current and future value of LCA to inform positive sustainability impacts and business values, we have heard from Jim and Caroline on the importance the SETAC books played in setting the foundation for the LCA of today.

Stay tuned for ensuing blogs on success factors in the use of LCA and perspectives on where we see the future practise and value going forward.

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