ISO Standards: What, Why, How
Reviewing the breadth and importance of LCA-relevant ISO standards, with perspective on their development from EarthShift Global LCA consultants
The What, Why, and How of ISO Standards for LCA and Environmental Management
The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is an independent, non-governmental body that brings together representatives from 167 nations to develop and update consensus standards for a wide range of technology and manufacturing activities, from date and time formats to child car seats and quality management.
ISO currently lists over 15 standards and publications related to life cycle assessment. An additional 65 standards and publications related to different aspects of environmental management, ranging from environmental management systems and environmental labeling to greenhouse gas management and carbon footprints are also available. The breadth and importance of the ISO standards make it worthwhile to review what the standards are, why they’re important, and how they’re developed — including firsthand observations from EarthShift Global analysts who are active in such development efforts.
Those 80+ ISO standards, some very broad and some tightly focused, are developed by technical subcommittees with international membership and strong hands-on experience in their fields. Primary responsibility for LCA-related standards rests with the Technical Committee on Environmental Management’s Life Cycle Assessment subcommittee, or, in ISO’s hierarchical designation, ISO/TC 207/SC 5 (https://www.iso.org/committee/...).
The LCA subcommittee has direct responsibility for published LCA standards and standards in development. The leading international standards on life cycle assessment (LCA) are 14040 and 14044. They focus mainly on the process of performing LCA, following a product’s impact from cradle to grave. ISO 14040 describes the ”principles and framework for LCA”, while the ISO 14044 “specifies requirements and provides guidelines” for LCA.
Other standards from the subcommittee include ones for organizational LCA, or O-LCA (ISO 14072), eco-efficiency assessment of product systems (ISO 14045), water footprinting (ISO 14046), and critical review of LCA projects (ISO 14071). Developmental standards include ones covering normalization, weighting and interpretation in LCAs, and social LCA.
Other ISO subcommittees also issue standards on relevant topics in their areas of specialization, like LCA-related footprinting of plastics (ISO 22526) from the subcommittee on Environmental Aspects (Plastics). Subcommittees in other fields have worked on lifecycle aspects of steel (ISO 20915), concrete structures (ISO 22040), and cast-iron pipes and fittings (ISO 21503), all of which can provide useful information and guidance.
Environmental product labeling, which is often an LCA project goal, is overseen by its own subcommittee (ISO/TC 207/SC 3). And LCA practitioners working in broader areas of sustainability may also encounter ISO standards that cover topics like greenhouse gas quantification, environmental management and auditing systems, site assessment, material flow cost accounting, green debt instruments, and environmentally conscious design.
In the world of LCA, just as in other areas of human activity, there is great value in having agreed-upon standards that provide a level and consistent playing field for all involved parties. By providing common definitions and procedures they streamline LCA planning and execution. They also foster greater confidence in the resulting work products and make it easier to compare findings and rely on them for strategy, operations, marketing, and other critical functions.
At the same time, ISO’s constant review and updating of standards helps advance the state of the art of LCA. For example, both basic LCA standards (14040 and 14044) have been updated with multiple amendments since their initial publication in 2006.
As EarthShift Global CEO and founder Lise Laurin has said (https://earthshiftglobal.com/b...), “constant improvement of our methodologies, procedures, and tools is an important part of maintaining the professional standards of the sustainability community. It will pay ongoing dividends to all of us, and our successors.”
There are also more immediate benefits. Standard-compliant Critical Review LCAs can withstand critical scrutiny in the marketplace and (should the need arise) in the legal system. We have seen instances where practitioners’ adherence to standards has sheltered them from exposure to lawsuits.
Finally, it’s worth noting that one strategic priority driving ISO’s efforts is support of the United Nations 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). (https://www.iso.org/files/live...) With over 20,000 standards and related documents, ISO aims to support the three pillars of sustainable development (economic, social, and environmental) and help policymakers, corporations, and consumers advance towards their sustainability goals.
ISO’s standard development process is based on response to a market need through a consensus-oriented multi-stakeholder process that draws on global expertise. It’s handled by over 250 technical committees, with membership drawn not only from industry, but also from consumer associations, academia, NGOs, and government.
As ISO puts it (https://www.iso.org/developing-standards.html):
“Like a symphony, it takes a lot of people working together to develop a standard. ISO’s role is similar to that of a conductor, while the orchestra is made up of independent technical experts nominated by our members.
“They begin the process with the development of a draft that meets a market need within a specific area. This is then shared for commenting and further discussion.
“The voting process is the key to consensus. If that’s achieved then the draft is on its way to becoming an ISO standard. If agreement isn’t reached then the draft will be modified further, and voted on again.
“From first proposal to final publication, developing a standard usually takes about 3 years.”
EarthShift Global has longstanding contributions to the development of ISO standards. EarthShift Global senior sustainability advisor Valentina Prado is a co-chair of the SETAC expert group to ISO 14068 Carbon Neutrality. The SETAC expert group is a mix of academia/consultants and industry. CEO Lise Laurin has been involved in several ISO standards since the early 2000s, while senior sustainability advisor Nathan Ayer is a member of the Standards Council of Canada (SCC) Mirror Committee for ISO/TC207/SC3 - Environmental Labelling.
Involvement in the review and development of ISO standards provides a valuable professional development opportunity for our team and helps to further deepen our LCA expertise and experience. Our in-depth knowledge of the ISO standards is one of the reasons we are a highly sought-after partner in Critical Reviews and more advanced LCA techniques.
Contact us to learn more about what we know and how it can improve the quality of your life cycle assessment and advance your sustainability