The first well-known environmental study was conducted in 1969 by Coca-Cola.
The study compared beverage containers and showed that all container materials had a real environmental impact and some materials had a greater impact than others. Coca-Cola acted not by removing the worst-performing materials from their products but by working with local authorities to develop a take-back scheme and recycling infrastructure to collect aluminum cans. In doing so, the company realized a 90% reduction in the energy used throughout the can’s lifetime.
During the 1970s and ’80s, many approaches to reducing environmental harm included regulatory control of point-source waste releases. Because these approaches were based on a single stage of a product’s life, such as production, or a single issue, such as wastewater, they were not particularly effective in achieving net environmental benefits. What they did achieve was a change in the way people thought about business and environmental management.
In 1979, the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) was founded to serve as a non-profit professional society to promote multi-disciplinary approaches to the study of environmental issues. SETAC’s other founding principles include multidisciplinary approaches to solving environmental problems; tripartite balance among academia, business and government and science-based objectivity.
In the late 1980s, life-cycle assessment emerged as a tool to better understand the risks, opportunities and trade-offs of product systems as well as the nature of environmental impacts. PE INTERNATIONAL’s GaBi Software, released in 1989, was one of the first commercial software tools to emerge and has since evolved into the market-leading life cycle assessment tool and database.
At the first SETAC-sponsored international workshop in 1990, the term “life cycle assessment” (LCA) was coined. The advantage of LCA over point-source regulation, is that it avoids shifting a product’s environmental burden to other life cycle stages or to other parts of the product system.
Beginning in 1993, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) tasked a small group of SETAC LCA experts with making a recommendation regarding the need to standardize LCA. The group’s recommendation was to proceed with standardization, and by 1997 the ISO14040 standard for Life cycle assessment – Principles and framework was complete. A number of additional standards were developed and ultimately reviewed and compiled in 2006 in the form of ISO 14044 Life cycle assessment – Requirements and guidelines.
In 2002, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), SETAC and partners from government, academia, civil society, business and industry joined forces to promote life cycle approaches worldwide.
A number of LCA-based guidelines and standards have subsequently been developed including the World Resource Institute and World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s PAS 2050:2011 Specification for the assessment of the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of goods and services. In 2012, the European Commission Joint Research Centre’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability released the International Reference Life Cycle Data System Handbook as part of the European life cycle push and to further specify the broader provisions of the ISO 14040 and 14044 standards.
According to Jim Fava, one of the fathers of LCA, “life cycle assessment has become a recognized instrument to assess the ecological burdens and human health impacts connected with the complete life cycle of products, processes and activities, enabling the practitioner to model the entire system from which products are derived or in which processes and activities operate.”
LCA use continues to expand and is now being heavily integrated into green building schemes around the world.