Level of analysis: any, but primary focus on the micro level (products and services)
Assessed aspects of sustainability: social
Main purpose of the assessment: To assess the social aspects of products and their positive and negative impacts along their life cycle.
Description of the methodology: social Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA) explores social aspects throughout the product life cycle, generally with the aim of improvement or in comparison to an alternative. The methodological framework, proposed by the UNEPSETAC Life Cycle Initiative, is based on the ISO-LCA structure. As a method that complements LCA with social aspects, it can either be applied on its own or in combination with LCA.
Life cycle assessment (LCA) is a methodology that traditionally considers environmental impacts in a products life cycle. The methodology has obtained a widespread use as decision-support among different stakeholder groups in society. With a broadly accepted goal in society to strive for a sustainable development, this has created incentives to not only assess environmental impacts of products, but also to consider their economic and social impacts. While economic impacts of products usually are covered by Life Cycle Costing (LCC) the social impacts of products have more recently been introduced in the LCA-methodologies, commonly referred to as Social Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA). Nevertheless, social impacts are not easily distinguished from the economic context in which they occur: when referring to the causes of social impacts, this generally implies behaviours, socio-economic processes and human, social and cultural capitals. For this reason, SLCA could also be referred to as socioeconomic LCA.
The aim with SLCA is to assess the social aspects of products and their impacts along their life cycle. The methodology is object of an increasing number of published papers (see Barthel et al. 2005, Flysjö 2006, Manhart and Grießhammer et al. 2006, Norris 2006, Weidema 2006). Because of its early stage of development no standard or code of practice has been developed yet but the issue has been discussed and treated in Grießhammer et al. 20064. The study contains an evaluation of how social aspects can be integrated into environmental LCA methodologies, and how the process towards agreement in the expert community (Code of Practice) and towards standardization over the long term could best be shaped. One of the outcomes of the study was a proposal how the typical procedure used for an environmental LCA (Goal and scope definition, Inventory analysis, Impact assessment and Interpretation) could be transferred to SLCA.
Many concepts and approaches developed in the field of LCA could potentially apply also to SLCA, like e.g. the consequential approach. At present few applications of SLCA exist and all refer to the attributional model; nevertheless, as practice evolves, consequential SLCA is likely to develop.
At present, a Code of Practice for social LCA is under preparation within the task force of the UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle: its publication, foreseen in autumn 2009, will represent a decisive step forward in the methodological development and will define in more detail the framework for the SLCA.
Social Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA), which is specifically designed to add social aspects to the study of the life cycle of a product, may present several strength points:
– It can give a contribution – together with LCA and LCC – to the interpretation of the product sustainability to stakeholders and decision makers. In particular the use of SLCA within the ISO-LCA framework could in specific circumstances, where the level of complexity is low, make the process of “integrated” evaluation between environmental and socio-economic aspects easier.
– The simplification introduced when modelling social mechanisms could foster the application of the method in cases in which no complex dynamics or counter-reactions exist.
– The participation of the different stakeholders bases the indicators and judgments on a broader discussion and helps to collect data.
– The procedure of carrying out a SLCA study increases the awareness of the complexities and interrelations existing in the social domain of different systems. In
– addition, it could also create an opportunity for creating a more well-founded base for supporting a decision making process.
– From the practicability point of view, LCA software developers have begun to add features to their software tools to enable users to track social variables.
The following aspects represent a limitation for SLCA applications:
– Lack of consensus at methodological level. In a thorough literature study of SLCA conducted by Jǿrgensen et al. (2008) a multitude of different approaches where found with regards to nearly all steps in the SLCA methodology. One example of such difference was which impact categories to include in the assessment and how to measure these. Without some degree of consensus regarding these aspects the SLCA is not likely to gain any weight as a decision-support tool.
– Stakeholder’s involvement. SLCA requires special focus on the stakeholders’ position, because social aspects can be weighted differently in different countries/regions and by different stakeholders. Furthermore, a balance should be found between: i) a participative approach, which, through different stakeholder contributions, can supply a way of increasing knowledge and awareness about the system and its complexities, but often remains at qualitative level; ii) a more analytical approach, which is mainly aimed at producing a simplified model of the system and at “quantifying” impacts.
– Some of the strengths cited above are weaknesses at the same time. Indeed, simplification in modelling the social pathway stands if applied to “simple” situation: otherwise, when complexities exist which involves rebound effects, the adoption of linearity in modelling could lead to misleading conclusions.
Besides the above aspects, at present weaknesses in SLCA mainly concern modelling and data.
– necessity of involving several upstream chains, particularly in the case of more complex industrial products
– Definition of functional unit and characterization of the product utility, which can include socio-economic aspects and symbolic functions for the consumer (key aspects are time requirement, convenience, prestige etc.) (Grießhammer et al. 2006).
– Difficulties of managing subjective aspects in the assessment phase,
– Lack of agreement on how to measure the social impacts (qualitative, quantitative or semi-quantitative indicators) and how to identify relevant issues for Social LCA, considering the socio-economic and political problems on a country or regional basis.
– Impacts location: in SLCA generic data, which are not collected on site, may be poor representations of the actual impacts: geographic location of unit processes is fundamental for the assessment of social impacts. This aspect has consequences at the level of data collection and relevance.
– Modelling of the casual pathways: this aspect poses several difficulties since the causal pathways that link processes at the inventory level to potential impacts cannot be always resolved by using linear/direct cause-effect modelling. The review of Jǿrgensen et al. (2008) presents a certain number of approaches to the characterisation of social indicators, but concludes that the trend seems more oriented towards simplification of inventory results than towards a characterisation in line with the ELCA methodology. Normalisation and valuation in SLCA are suggested by several authors, but very little work has been done on this subject.
Data collection is a challenging aspect of the inventory analysis due to problem of data availability and reliability, especially for complex supply chains: Only a small part of the data is available in processed form from statistical or other sources and no data is yet available for several recurrent processes and activities. Some authors support the use of generic process data to give an estimate for a certain number of social impacts while others claim that they are irrelevant because social impacts have to deal with the behaviour of each company (Dreyer et al., 2006). However, collecting site-specific data is a very demanding task and guidelines on monitoring approaches are missing.
Opportunities for broadening and deepening LCA
Interest has been growing at international level in social and economic policies aimed at promoting economic and social welfare in developing countries and improving working conditions all over the world. In particular in Europe the recent publication of the Sustainable Consumption and Production Action Plan claims a deep afterthought of the general characteristic of the development and of the relationship among economic growth, environmental protection and social equity. Achieving these goals requires the use of methods and approaches able to evaluate the different dimensions, including the social one.
Threats for broadening and deepening LCA
There is the risk that modelling of social impacts, which is a simplification of the reality, could be perceived as useful for more complex situations than it is intended for, in which several interrelations exist that cannot be resolved with only support of SLCA. Thus, it is important that the results of an SLCA, as quantitative results supplying “technical elements” for supporting choices, clearly report also the level of uncertainty and subjectivity, in order to allow for more transparency and reliability of the study.
4. Feasibility study prepared in a multi-stage discussion process within the context of the task-force “Integration of
social aspects in LCA” of the UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative
Dreyer, L.; Hauschild, M.; Schierbeck, J. (2006). A Framework for Social Life Cycle Impact Assessment. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 11 (2) 88-97.
Grießhammer, R.; Benoît, C.; Dreyer, L.C.; Flysjö, A.; Manhart, A.; Mazijn, B.; Méthot, A-L. and Weidema, B.P. (2006) Feasibility Study: Integration of social aspects into LCA.
Hunkeler, D. (2006). Societal LCA Methodology and Case Study. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 11 (6) 371-382.
Jǿrgensen, A.; Le Bocq, A.; Nazarkina, L.; Hauschild, M. (2008). Methodologies for Social Life Cycle Assessment. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 8 (Online First) 1-8.
Norris, G.A. (2006). Social Impacts in Product Life Cycles – Towards Life Cycle Attribute Assessment. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 11 (Special Issue 1) 97-104.
Weidema, B.P. (2006). The Integration of Economic and Social Aspects in Life Cycle Impact Assessment. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 11 (Special Issue 1) 89-96.