Introduction to LCA

By Ann-Christin Pålsson

What is LCA?

A life cycle assessment (LCA) studies the potential environmental impacts of products or services throughout all stages of their life cycle – from extraction of resources, through all production and transportation steps, to the use and end of life of the product, see the picture below. The end of life phase can involve reuse, recycling or final disposal and waste management. Examples of environmental impacts that are included are resource use, human health and ecological consequences through e.g. global warming.

When and how can LCA be used?

LCA can be used as a central tool in the work with sustainability in supply chains to for example:

  • get an overview of the overall impacts, to identify hotspots and areas for improvements in the life cycle of the products
  • measure and follow-up the environmental performance of products; for the entire life cycle and/or parts of the life cycle
  • provide basis for decisions on where to focus efforts and investments for optimal performance.

Results from LCA:s can be used as input in the activities for sustainable supply chains; in the development of strategy and organisation of sustainability work, and  in the day-to-day business decisions when developing products and processes, when selecting suppliers and materials, as well as in marketing.

See also the “Applying LCA” part of this guide for further information.

Overview of ISO standards for LCA

The methodology for performing LCA´s have been standardised within the International Standard Organisation (ISO) through the ISO 14040 series of standards. These standards are developed within the technical committee ISO/TC 207. The standards provide principles, framework, and methodological requirements for conducting LCA studies. The series also include a format for documentation of LCA data and two technical reports that include examples of the application of LCA.The standards within the ISO 14040 series of standards are:

  • ISO 14040:2006 Environmental management – Life cycle assessment – Principles and framework
  • ISO 14044:2006 Environmental management – Life cycle assessment – Requirements and guidelines
  • ISO/TR 14047:2003 Environmental management – Life cycle impact assessment – Examples of application of ISO 14042
  • ISO/TS 14048:2002 Environmental management – Life cycle assessment – Data documentation format
  • ISO/TR 14049:2000 Environmental management – Life cycle assessment – Examples of application of ISO 14041 to goal and scope definition and inventory analysis

In addition; there are a number of ISO standards that make use of and relate to LCA methodology:

  • ISO 14001:2004 Environmental management systems – Requirements with guidance for use
  • ISO 14025:2006 Environmental labels and declarations – Type III environmental declarations – Principles and procedures
  • ISO 14067 Carbon footprint of products (under development)
  • ISO 14046 Water footprint (under development)
  • ISO 14045 Environmental management – Eco-efficiency assessment of product systems – Principles, requirements and guidelines