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Keywords:

  • environmental decision making;
  • framing;
  • institutionalization;
  • life-cycle assessment (LCA);
  • life-cycle management;
  • public understanding

Summary

The widespread popularity of life-cycle assessment (LCA) is difficult to understand from the point of view of instrumental decision making by economic agents. Ehrenfeld has argued, in a 1997 issue of this journal, that it is the world-shaping potential of LCA that is more important than its use as a decision-making tool. The present study attempts to explore the institutionalization of this “LCA world view” among ordinary market actors. This is important because environmental policy relies increasingly on market-based initiatives. Cognitive and normative assumptions in authoritative LCA documents are examined as empirical data and compared with data from focus group interviews concerning products and the environment with “ordinary” manufacturers, retailers, and consumers in Finland. These assumptions are (1) the “cradle-to-grave” approach, (2) the view that all products have an environmental impact and can be improved, (3) the relativity of environmental merit, and (4) the way responsibility for environmental burdens is attributed. Relevant affinities, but also differences, are identified. It is argued that life-cycle thinking is not primarily instrumental, but rather is gaining a degree of intrinsic value. The study attempts to establish a broader institutional context in which the popularity of LCA can be understood. From the point of view of this broader context, some future challenges for the development of LCA and life-cycle thinking are suggested.