SETAC Globe - Environmental Quality Through Science
  14 April 2011
Volume 12 Issue 4

Return to the Globe

SETAC and Life Cycle Assessment: Parallel Growth

James A. Fava, Five Winds International

The launch of Google’s Books Ngram Viewer, which allows any user to graph the frequency of occurrence of words or phrases in Google’s database of 500 billion words from digitized books, enticed me to investigate the relationships of a number of life-cycle assessment (LCA)-related words over time. One combination, “SETAC” (Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry) and “life cycle assessment,” yielded a very interesting graph for the years 1980-2008 (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Frequency of occurrence (percent) of the words “life cycle assessment” and “SETAC” in the literature from 1980 to 2008.
Figure 1. Frequency of occurrence (percent) of the words “life cycle assessment” and “SETAC” in the literature from 1980 to 2008.

The “SETAC” acronym first appeared in books in the 1980s. Its relative frequency of appearance grew steadily from 1990 through 2004, showing a ten-fold increase. In 1990, SETAC sponsored an international workshop at which the term “life cycle assessment” was coined.1 Before then, a few practitioners in the U.S. and Europe used different terms such as “Resource and Environmental Profile Analysis” (REPA).2 SETAC established the accepted name (and framework) for life cycle assessment.

The occurrence of the phrase “life cycle assessment” in books grew very similarly to the occurrence of “SETAC” from 1990 through 2004. Was this a coincidence or were there activities within SETAC that contributed to this parallel growth? As growing interest in green buildings and sustainable products (to name a few drivers) increased the use of LCA, it is worth a quick review of the recent history behind SETAC’s role. Klöpffer (2005)3 provides an excellent summary of the role of SETAC in the development of LCA; and Ekvall (2005)4 outlines the further advancement of LCA by SETAC’s LCA working groups.

SETAC’s Workshops, Advisory Group and Books
SETAC was the first international organization to recognize LCA’s potential value. In the early 1990s, as a result of the success of the first LCA workshop, SETAC established an LCA Advisory Group whose mission was to advance the science, practice, and application of LCAs, thereby reducing the resource consumption and environmental burdens associated with products, packaging, processes, and activities. To achieve this mission, the SETAC Advisory Group:

  1. Serves as a focal point to provide a broad-based forum for the identification, resolution, and communication of issues regarding LCAs.
  2. Facilitates, coordinates, and provides guidance for LCA development and implementation.

Using the SETAC Advisory Group as the organizational body, SETAC raised funds and resources to sponsor a series of LCA-related workshops that laid the foundation for the current growth of LCA throughout the world. These conferences followed SETAC’s intensive Pellston workshop format, in which experts are convened into working groups for a week. Each Pellston workshop usually results in the publication of a scientific book or series of articles. Table 1 provides a list of many of the SETAC LCA books. See the SETAC website for a complete listing.

Table 1. Partial List of SETAC published LCA books

ISO TC 207 LCA Standards
SETAC’s role (within the realm of LCAs) is not to define standard methods but to develop initiatives that will improve the science behind the LCA methods. Organizations such as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) have the responsibility of harmonizing LCA methods.

ISO developed worldwide standards in an effort to streamline the international marketplace for industry. In the 1990s and continuing today, ISO was and is developing ISO’s 14000 series of Environmental Management Standards. In 1993, because of serious concern among industry, government, and the public about the proliferation of local and national environmental standards, ISO established Technical Committee 207 (TC 207) to develop environmental management tools and systems that would be applicable worldwide. Among the tools standardized are systems for environmental management, auditing, environmental performance evaluation, LCA, and eco-labeling.

ISO TC 207 developed a number of LCA standards initially but they have been consolidated into two life cycle assessment standards:

  • ISO 14040 Environmental Management―Life Cycle Assessment―Principles and Framework
  • ISO 14044 Environmental Management―Life Cycle Assessment―Requirements and Guidelines

Overall, the ISO 14040 Standards are directed at product/process evaluation and LCA as tools for identifying trade-offs. All fall under the category of guidance rather than specifications.

Beyond ISO and SETAC
SETAC has partnered with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) to establish the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative in order to achieve sustainable development by creating practical tools for evaluating products and services over their entire life cycle.5 SETAC brings scientific knowledge, while UNEP brings a capacity for facilitation and dissemination throughout the entire UN. Since 2002, the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative has attracted over 2,000 professionals who are committed to bringing science-based life cycle approaches into worldwide practice. The UNEP/SETAC website provides an excellent collection of reports and training materials, and it is seen as the central information clearinghouse for life cycle approaches.

LCA Applications
As LCA has evolved, our software and access to data has improved steadily. The use of LCA studies to support claims of product superiority, however, continues to spur “dueling” product analyses similar to those of the late 1980s.

When the ISO LCA standards were written in the 1990s, they were designed by consensus to allow flexibility in the goal and scope of each LCA study, particularly those intended to drive innovation or to support research. More rigorous requirements were added for those who wished to use the LCA results to make “comparative assertions”—environmental claims regarding the superiority or equivalence of their product versus a competitor’s.

Even with those requirements it became obvious that obtaining comparable information on competing product systems is difficult, if not impossible. LCA study results depend on the assumptions and data used. The absence of equivalent data on the compared systems permits continual rebuttal of the results based on different assumptions. Rarely do the parties involved come to the table to agree on the parameters of comparison because such an agreement would force the “loser” to acknowledge product inferiority.

As a result, the application of LCA studies has evolved towards identifying trade-offs and improvement opportunities for successive generations of products within a company—a continuous improvement strategy based on the availability of equivalent LCA data. This type of LCA applications is often seen currently the most effective, because it provides consistent life cycle information that can be used to inform decision making and aid in the development of greener, smarter products and services.

The demand for meaningful comparison of competing products persists, however, and it is being answered by evolving systems of Product Category Rules (PCR) and Environmental Product Declarations. These compare product uses, EOL scenarios, recycled content, and other factors.

While this short article is in no way a definitive summary of SETAC’s contributions to the development of LCA, it should be obvious that SETAC and its members have taken a global leadership role in advancing the science and understanding behind the application of life cycle approaches. Much remains to be done, but I think we have reached the tipping point where policy makers and researchers in government, industry and academia all see the continuing demand for life cycle information that informs decision making and ensures greener, smarter products and services. SETAC’s leadership in the early 1990s enabled and promoted the scientific development of the LCA framework, laying the foundation for ISO, the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative, and many other developments and applications. SETAC will continue to play a pivotal role in the global development of LCA.

Author contact information:

Return to the Globe

1 Fava J, Denison R, Jones B, Curran M, Vigon B, Selke S, Barnum J, editors. 1991. A Technical Framework for Life-Cycle Assessment. Pensacola (FL): SETAC Press.
2 Hunt R, Franklin W. 1996. LCA - How it Came About. Personal Reflections on the Origin and the Development of LCA in the USA. Int J LCA 1:4-7.
3 Klöpffer W. 2005. The role of SETAC in the Development of LCA. Int J LCA.
4 Ekvall T. 2005. SETAC Summaries. J of Cleaner Production 1351-1358.
5 See
SETAC mission statement Contact SETAC Globe
Contact the SETAC North America office
Contact the SETAC Europe office