A recent survey conducted on almost 400 companies in Germany, Italy, Sweden and Switzerland shows that, so far, LCA is mostly used for internal purposes (Frankl and
Rubik 1999, p. 72). This conclusion is substantially confirmed by other studies carried out in Nordic European countries (Hanssen 1999) and in Denmark (Broberg and Christensen 1999) and by discussions with other LCA practitioners.
The identification of potential bottlenecks, that is, of environmental critical points along the product life cycle, is currently by far the most common application of LCA in industry. This is not surprising since this is the first step in many kinds of analysis, either retrospective or prospective.
The second most important internal application is the comparison of existing products with planned or possible alternatives (Frankl and Rubik 1999). This does not imply that the results have a strong impact on product innovation. However, in many companies LCA is already used for research, design and development, in particular in Nordic countries. Hanssen notes that 32 per cent of the almost 350 LCA studies reported in recent years in these countries were focused on product development and improvement. It is clear that Nordic countries are currently among the most proactive countries with respect to a systematic use of LCA for environmental product innovation and improvement.
In principle, LCA is also suitable to support long-term strategic decisions. Indeed, it is very desirable that environmental assessment tools be used as early as possible in the product development process, as this can significantly reduce costs. On the other hand, however, 'for more complicated products the number of alternative possibilities is very high, and as the database on exotic materials is limited, the application of quantitative and detailed LCAs to such products may prove to be very resource demanding and at the same time not very precise' (Jensen et al. 1997). As a matter of fact, up to 1998 very few companies had used LCA for radical changes in the product life cycle and/or to shift from products to services (Frankl and Rubik 1999). However, the use of LCA for strategy development is expected to increase significantly in the future, as the knowledge on LCA methodology, the internal know-how and data, and the availability of public data-bases improve. Conceptual or simplified LCAs are also more likely to be used than elaborate, detailed, complete LCAs. According to one study, 13 per cent of LCA studies in Nordic countries (25 per cent in Finland) are intended for purposes of strategy development (Hanssen 1999).
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