Wikis > Formulation Tools > Sustainability Assessment (SA)
Primary Source: Jeswani, H., and Azapagic, A. (2006) Strategic Assessment SWOT Analysis in Report on the SWOT analysis of concepts, methods, and models potentially supporting LCA. Eds. Schepelmann, Ritthoff & Santman (Wuppertal Institute for Climate and Energy) & Jeswani and Azapagic (University of Manchester), pp 182-188

Level of analysis: Micro, meso and macro.

Assessed aspects of sustainability: Environmental, Economic and Sociall possible, with a focus on environmental aspects

Main purpose of the assessment: Integrated assessment of environmental, economic and social sustainability.

Description of the methodology: SA framework allows using combination of various tools to assess all aspects of sustainability (economic, environmental and social) of policies, projects and plans.

Detailed Description

Sustainability Assessment is an umbrella term that can include a range of approaches or methodologies such as Sustainability Appraisal, Sustainability Impact Assessment, Integrated Sustainability Assessment5, or Integrated Assessment6, amongst others. Sustainability Assessment may be conducted by regulators for approval purposes, in what might be termed “external” Sustainability Assessment; while “internal” Sustainability Assessment is increasingly conducted by proponents themselves as a tool to improve internal decision-making and the overall sustainability of the final proposal (Pope, 2006). It is being applied to an ever-increasing range of decisions across the world, from policies, to strategic plans, to projects to trade agreements (Dalal-Clayton and Sadler, 2005), at different levels (local, regional, national, international, sectoral) and with different timing (ex ante, during, ex post).

There are many variations of the forms of sustainability-based assessment existing throughout the world. Many international organisations and associations have adopted sustainability and have been developing indicators for sustainability assessments. Some of these organisations and associations include Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), World Trade Organisation (WTO), World Economic Forum’s (Pilot Environmental Sustainability Index), the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes, the Global Mining Initiative (GMI) Mining Minerals and Sustainable Development (MMSD) assessment process (assessing the state of the mining industry in terms of sustainability) and European Commission’s Sustainable Development Indicators (SDIs) (Buselich, 2002). Some of the other models which are being used by industries include the Sustainability Assessment Model (SAM) – used by BP and SPeAR (Arup’s spreadsheet and diagram model).

More recently, the EU has introduced the more comprehensive tool of (Sustainability) Impact Assessment. The intention is to move from the sectoral and often fragmented assessments to an integrated assessment covering environmental, economic and social parameters. The goal of this new tool is to be able to identify the likely positive and negative impacts of proposed policy actions – notably those relevant under the EU Sustainable Development Strategy – and thus enable informed political judgements about the proposal (CEC, 2002). Furthermore, as part of FP6, three other research projects: SustainabilityA-Test, MATISSE, and FORESCENE, have investigated options and developed analytical frameworks for Sustainability Assessment.

Although sustainability is a multi-dimensional integrative concept, it is context-bound and needs to be interpreted and implemented by a range of stakeholders within that specific context. The concept of sustainable development is contested, both scientifically and socially; therefore Sustainability Assessment could also be subjective and ambiguous. The SustainabilityA-test project suggests that sustainability assessments should bring together as many relevant aspects in the context of sustainable development as possible (SutainabilityAtest website). These include human and biophysical, present and future, local and global, active and precautionary, critique and alternative vision, concept and practice, and universal and context-specific. In addition, proper sustainability implementation should engage together participants covering the full range of public, corporate and civil society organisations and institutions, as well as individuals with their various capacities and inclinations. And all of these are recognised as constituent factors in complex and dynamic interrelations. Appreciation of uncertainty is also part of the sustainability concept. Still, the essence of the concept, and the key to its implementation, is clearly centred on appreciation of links and integration of the relevant considerations.

Often in sustainability assessments, the three pillars (social, economic and ecological) are used as conventional disciplinary categories to represent the main broad areas of concerns as well as for the structuring of sustainability indicators. Box 1 presents examples of different impacts to be evaluated under the EU Impact Assessment for these three categories. Although this approach is comprehensive and familiar way of organising sustainability assessment criteria, it does not integrate and deal with cross—pillar issues (Gibson et al. 2005). In this respect, Gibson et al. (2005) suggest the following generic assessment criteria for the sustainability assessment framework (Box 2). The authors argue that these criteria not only cover all core sustainability requirements, but also force thinking across the boundaries between the three usual pillar categories, and draw explicit attention to the concerns most commonly ignored or marginalised in conventional decision-making.

Box -1: Examples of economic, social and environmental impacts

 Economic impacts: both macro- and micro-economic impacts, notably in terms of economic growth and competitiveness, i.e. changes in compliance costs, including administrative burdens to businesses/SMEs and implementation costs for public authorities, impacts on the potential for innovation and technological development, changes in investment, market shares and trade patterns as well as increases or decreases in consumer prices etc.

Social impacts: impacts on human capital, impact on fundamental/human rights, compatibility with Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union changes in employment levels or job quality, changes affecting gender equality, social exclusion and poverty, impacts on health, safety, consumer rights, social capital, security (including crime and terrorism), education, training and culture, as well as distributional implications such as effects on the income of particular sectors, groups of consumers or workers etc.

Environmental impacts: positive and negative impacts associated with the changing status of the environment such as climate change, air, water and soil pollution, land-use change and biodiversity loss, changes in public health, etc. Source: (CEC, 2002).



Box -2: The Basic Sustainability Assessment Decision Criteria

 Socio-ecological system integrity: Build human-ecological relations to establish and maintain the long-term integrity of socio-biophysical systems and protect the irreplaceable life support functions upon which human as well as ecological well-being depends.

Livelihood sufficiency and opportunity: Ensure that everyone and every community has enough for a decent life and that everyone has opportunities to seek improvements in ways that do not compromise future generations’ possibilities for sufficiency and opportunity.

Intragenerational equity: Ensure that sufficiency and effective choices for all are pursued in ways that reduce dangerous gaps in sufficiency and opportunity (and health, security, social recognition, political influence, etc.) between the rich and the poor.

Intergenerational equity: Favour present options and actions that are most likely to preserve or enhance the opportunities and capabilities of future generations to live sustainable.

Resource maintenance and efficiency: Provide a larger base for ensuring sustainable livelihoods for all while reducing threats to the long-term integrity of socio-ecological systems by reducing extractive damage, avoiding waste and cutting overall material and energy use per unit of benefit.

Socio-ecological civility and democratic governance: Build the capacity, motivation and habitual inclination of individuals, communities and other collective decision-making bodies to apply sustainability requirements through more open and better informed deliberations, greater attention to fostering reciprocal awareness and collective responsibility, and more integrated use of administrative, market, customary and personal decision-making practices.

Precaution and adaptation: Respect uncertainty, avoid even poorly understood risks of serious or irreversible damage to the foundations for sustainability, plan to learn, design for surprise, and manage for adaptation.

Immediate and long-term integration: Apply all principles of sustainability at once, seeking mutually supportive benefits and multiple gains. Source: Gibson et al. (2005), Chapter 5

Under the SA framework, various tools can be used to assess these impacts. However, a common problem identified in literature is the lack of guidance on what tools can be used. Frequently, guideline documents provide the necessary procedural steps, checklists and matrices but remarkably little actual methodological and analytical guidance (e.g., CEC, 2002, 2005). Literature and some research projects recommend that sustainability assessment process should combine various existing assessment tools and indicators to help decision-making (Ness, 2007; de Ridder et al., 2007). For example, Azapagic (2003) and Azapagic and Perdan (2000) propose a life cycle approach to sustainability assessment of industrial systems, using LCA and indicators of sustainable development as the tools. Sustainability A-Test realises that assessing sustainability involves “multiple generations (i.e. longer time scales), multiple geographical scales (i.e. from local to global), multiple domains (i.e. economic, environmental and social) and multiple perspectives (i.e. different ideas about how to develop sustainable)”. To include such wide aspects, the project maps several existing tools which could be used in combination. These include:

1. Physical assessment tools

2. Monetary assessment tools

3. Models (various computer models)

4. Scenario analysis

5. Multi-criteria analysis

6. Sustainability/environmental appraisal tools

7. Participatory tools (aiming to involve stakeholders)

8. Transition management


SA provides a flexible framework for evaluation of different systems at all levels, from micro to macro, with the main goal to merge different approaches and methodologies into overarching sustainability assessments and to identify synergies and trade-offs among the different sustainability dimensions.

The framework allows using combination of various tools to assess different sustainability (economic, environmental and social) aspects.

It links the human and biophysical, present and future, local and global, active and precautionary, critique and alternative vision, concept and practice, as well as universal and context-specific aspects.


The research on how to organise and deploy different tools and methodologies in assessments is still in its infancy. A common problem identified in literature is the lack of guidance on what tools can be used. Often, guideline documents provide the necessary procedural steps, checklists and matrices but little actual methodological and analytical guidance.

Often many approaches to sustainability oriented assessments—at the project as well as strategic level—address the social, economic and ecological considerations separately and then struggle with how to integrate the separate findings.

Integration of qualitative and quantitative information into a single framework is also a critical issue for Sustainability Assessment.

Opportunities for broadening and deepening LCA

SA facilitates broader sustainability policy integration in every political or strategic decision.

In SA there is a strong emphasis on stakeholder engagement as well as inducing a reframing and learning process among participants in the process.

In 2002, the EU introduced (Sustainability) Impact Assessment as a comprehensive tool to identify the likely positive and negative impacts of proposed policy actions – notably those relevant under the EU Sustainable Development Strategy – and thus enable informed political judgements about the proposal (CEC, 2002).

Threats for broadening and deepening LCA

The concept of sustainable development is contested, both scientifically and socially, therefore Sustainability Assessment could also be subjective, ambiguous, context-bound and needs to be interpreted and implemented by a range of stakeholders within that specific context.

Integrating environmental, economic and social aspects is not easy and may deter end-users from engaging in the process.

The data requirements are substantial and may lead to protracted analyses, discussions or abandoning the assessment.

End Notes:

5. The MATISSE project, which is currently working on the development of Integrated Sustainability Assessment (ISA) framework, differentiates ISA from other forms of sustainability assessment, such as Sustainability Impact Assessment, Integrated Assessment and Regulatory Impact Assessment. The project conceptualises ISA as a framework to support longer-term and more strategic policy processes, whereas the other forms of assessment fulfil the pragmatic need for ex ante screening of incremental sectoral policies that are developed within the prevailing policy regime (Weaver and Rotmans, 2006).

6 According to Pope (2006) the crucial difference between Sustainability Assessment and other Integrated Assessment tools is that Sustainability Assessment does not merely sum up separate economic, environmental and social assessments but rather emphasise their interconnection and interdependence.

Literature/Internet links

Azapagic, A. (2003) Systems Approach to Corporate Sustainability: A General Management Framework. IChemE Trans. B, Vol. 81, Part B, 303-316.

Azapagic, A. and Perdan, S. (2000) Indicators of Sustainable Development for Industry: A General Framework. IChemE Trans. B, 78(B4), 243-261.

Buselich, K. (2002) An outline of current thinking on sustainability assessment – A background paper prepared for the Western Australian State Sustainability Strategy, available at

CEC (2002) Impact assessment, COM(2002) 276 final, Commission of the European Communities (CEC), Brussels.

CEC (2005) Impact Assessment Guidelines, SEC (2005) 791, Commission of the European Communities (CEC), Brussels.

Dalal-Clayton, B. and Sadler, B. (2005) Sustainability Appraisal: A Review of International Experience and Practice. International Institute for Environment and Development,London, available at 188

de Ridder, W. (2006) Tool use in integrated assessment. Integration and synthesis report the Sustainability A-Test project. MNP report no. 555030001/2006, Bilthoven.

de Ridder, W., Turnpenny, J., Nilsson, M. and Raggamby, R. (2007) A Framework for Tool Selection and Use in Integrated Assessment for Sustainable Development, Journal ofEnvironmental Assessment Policy and Management, 9(4), 423–441.

Gibson, R (2006). Beyond the pillars: Sustainability assessment as framework for effective integration of social, economic and ecological considerations in significant decision-making, Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 8(3), 259–280.

Gibson, R., Hassan, S., Holtz, S., Tansey, J. and Whitelaw, G. (2005) Sustainability Assessment: Criteria and Processes. London: Earthscan.

Ness, B., Urbel-Piirsalu, E., Anderberg, S. and Olsson L. (2007) Categorising tools for sustainability assessment, Ecological Economics, 60: 498-508.

Pope, J. (2006) Editorial — What’s so special about sustainability assessment, Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, 8(3), v–x.

SustainabilityA-Test website:

Weaver, P. and Rotmans, J. (2006) Integrated sustainability assessment: What? Why? How? MATISSE working papers No. 1, available at