In ISO 14040, LCA is defined as follows: 'LCA is a technique for assessing the environmental aspects and potential impacts associated with a product by compiling an inventory of relevant inputs and outputs of a system; evaluating the potential environmental impacts associated with those inputs and outputs; and interpreting the results of the inventory and impact phases in relation to the objectives of the study.' Products also include services which provide a given function. In the following we, however, will speak of a product as pars pro toto for all objects of LCA, if not specified differently.
The reference for the study is the function which is delivered by a product. This means that ultimately all environmental impacts are related to this function, being the basis for comparisons to be made. The product, which delivers this function, is studied during its whole life cycle; all processes related to the product during its whole life cycle are together called the 'product system'. These processes are studied employing a quantitative, formalized mathematical approach. A clear distinction is made between objective and normative parts, thereby ensuring transparency.
LCA is applied at various levels, ranging from operation to strategic applications. It is used in operational management, including purchasing decisions; in communication and marketing, including the underpinning of ecolabeling programs; in product design and development contributing to the area of Design for the Environment; in the underpinning of capital investments; and in strategic planning (cf. Wrisberg et al., 1997). The focus of applications is on large companies, but it increasingly includes governmental agencies and branch organizations of smaller companies. Whereas the ecolabeling programs in general have not met their expectations, use in the other types of applications shows a consistent increase over recent years (Frankl and Rubik 2000).
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