Only a decade ago, manufacturers took an end-of-pipe approach to environmental management; that is, the focus by a company was to ensure that its plant was in environmental compliance. As global environmental awareness increases, industries are moving toward greater levels of environmental responsibility.

Companies and industries now consider the environmental aspects of the entire life cycle of a product's manufacture, use and disposal. This analysis is called Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and is based on an inventory of the cradle-to-grave network for any product.

Life Cycle Inventory (LCI), the heart of the assessment tool, is a measure of naturally occurring resources and energy consumed, and emissions to the environment for the entire chain of steps associated with a product's life cycle. LCA is the use of this inventory to assess the impact of a product on the environment by categorizing emissions and resource consumption into environmental burden categories (e.g. global warming, bioaccumulators, ozone depleters, scarce-resource utilization, etc.) and then using relative weighting factors to derive overall conclusions.

One major concern with the use of LCA has been the lack of a standard methodology as well as the lack of accurate and current inventory data. As a result, a principal criticism has been that the inventory and assessment results lack objectivity and have been biased toward the sponsor; that is, materials with excessive burdens may not have been included in the LCI.

Given this less-than-enthusiastic response by users, LCA has been slow to take root. Nevertheless, the scientific community, seeing need for a good environmental management tool, has focused on using LCI/LCA.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) and the International Standards Organization (ISO) have begun to develop guidelines to standardize LCA methodology to produce credible LCI/LCA results that can be used by industry and consumers internally and externally. While these groups have been active for the past several years, it seems that areas outside of the U.S. (e.g. Western Europe and Canada) have been advancing more quickly in the use of LCA as a tool for judging a product's "greenness." The ISO 14000 initiative on the heels of the Chemical Manufacturing Assn.'s Responsible Care charter seems to be driving a renewed awareness of the potential for LCI/LCA to become credible environmental management tools. Chem Systems believes that there are (and will be) four principal drivers for the use of life cycle assessment by manufacturers:

* To take a proactive, not reactive, approach to legislative controls/restrictions.

* To identify, measure and drive internal improvement, both environmental and economic.

* To qualify the environmental performance of suppliers and to understand the life-cycle burdens associated with the raw materials being purchased.

* To monitor how customers handle, store, use and dispose of the products.

All are compelling reasons for the use of LCA.

Moving closer to the automotive industry, one initiative of the United States Council for Automotive Research (USCAR), a partnership of the Big Three automakers, is to use life cycle assessment to:

* Benchmark environmental performance of vehicles

* Evaluate recycling options

* Environmentally assess material choices in design stage

* Assess the environmental performance of their suppliers

* Improve their processes and require the same of their Tier 1 suppliers.

This effort is being undertaken by the United States Automobile Materials Partnership, a consortium under USCAR.

Organizers of the USCAR life-cycle initiative are optimistic that given the current status of databases and methodology, the use of LCA can be used to produce "greener" products in the relatively near future.

It would appear obvious that if environmental stewardship can be shown to contribute to a company's bottom line - in addition to fulfilling its social responsibility - the use of these tools is likely to be embraced more enthusiastically by senior management. In fact, it is likely to make a bigger contribution to society in the long term.