Overcoming labour exploitation – could Social Life Cycle Assessment prevent social injustices in production?

In 2013, the booming Bangladeshi garments industry suffered two horrific failures in corporate social responsibility. In April, 1,200 workers were killed in a building collapse, while in November workers protesting poor working conditions are believed to have set fire to a 10-story factory causing millions of dollars in damage. As corporations continue to outsource their supply chains to contractors in developing countries, does Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA) present our best means of holding big business accountable for it’s social impact?

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S-LCA: holistic advice for socially responsible consumption?

S-LCA has emerged as a new tool in the analysis of social impacts, developing it’s own aggregated datasets such as the Social Hotspots Database. These datasets provide valuable information on potential social issues relevant to a range of production systems based on their geographic location. As demonstrated by Environmental Life Cycle Assessment (E-LCA) the use of aggregated data substantially reduces costs and represents a crucial step in the push toward market readiness.

However, could the practical benefits of S-LCA be undermined by the use of geographically based data aggregates?

While recent events, and a lack of government regulation could mark Bangladesh as a country where labour exploitation is highly likely, there are anomalies breaking this trend. Alternatively, a seemingly low risk country, such as Mauritius, does not extend its labour protection laws to migrant workers creating significant disadvantage and exploitation amongst certain sections of society.

While database information will provide a route to market for the S-LCA methodology, it could influence companies concerned with the social impacts of their production to favour countries with good governance, labour and social records for the sake of product certification. At risk here is the incentive for beneficial and demonstrative work in countries where labour exploitation and unsafe working conditions may still be commonplace.

This highlights the ongoing need for refinement in aggregated datasets and a clearly defined user guide for market practitioners making use of them. Continued research into comparative studies (modelling a single product firstly through datasets and secondly through detailed product specifics) will provide the basis for improvement and refinement.

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Product Certification done right – the need for S-LCA
Nike became a high profile example of labour exploitation during the 1990’s when the company was tarnished by reports on the working conditions in some of it’s sub-contracted factories. While Nike was able to demonstrate it’s practices in owned and operated factories were compliant, it became apparent that their numerous subcontractors and suppliers were not meeting the same standard. Despite pleading ignorance, Nike was ultimately held accountable for the digressions of their suppliers. Were a life cycle assessment framework used initially in the analysis of the manufacturing process and upstream inputs to their products, these issues may have been found and the damage to the Nike brand avoided.

The scope of an S-LCA facilitates a comprehensive exploration of upstream inputs and downstream wastes, avoiding the narrowly focused certifications based on only a single part of a product’s life cycle. Consider, for example, these existing social certifications:
• Fairtrade – a certification promoting fair wages and prices for workers at the raw materials production level but not the impacts of usage and disposal
• Ethical Consumer ratings – which account for internal process and some upstream supply chain production, but neglect the impact of product usage and disposal.

Unlike other tools or labels, S-LCA has the potential to provide a wider and more holistic view of a product’s social impacts and may prove the most informative and complete assessment method for the social credentials of a product.

The S-LCA process incorporates the full life cycle of the product from cradle to grave, its inputs, use and effects of disposal. However, the balance between affordability of aggregated data and accuracy and usefulness of the data remains a crucial hurdle for the implementation of SLCA.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. malikavs says:

    Blake, Very interesting blog about designing new ways to understand the footprint of the products we consume.

    I was wondering how the SLCA calculation compares to new methodologies incorporating social dimensions in the measurements of the footprint of products.

    E.g. see initiatives in Europe on the subject

  2. blakelindley says:

    Hi Malika,

    The source you gave discussed the development of a ‘sustainable product index’ inclusive of social impacts. Considering their advocacy of the life cycle technique elsewhere, I imagine S-LCA would be their preferred method of analysis. I think article “Capturing the full environmental and social impacts of products” strongly promotes the assessment of products on a life cycle rather than single production stage. They raise the example of the Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) as an example. Currently the EU Ecolabel does not include social dimensions.

    I was unable to identify the exact methods proposed for social impact calculation, but it certainly would be made on a life cycle basis as explained in “Sustainable Product Indexing: Navigating the Challenge of Ecolabeling”. The difficulty comes in homogenizing a range of environmental and social impact categories to develop a single or limited attribute index system. Such adjustments (or ‘normalisation’) have implicit value judgements which can be extremely difficult to reconcile amongst the various stakeholder groups involved. These issues are also being grappled with in the development of S-LCA and do not have a clear cut answer!

    There are certainly plenty of examples now to show that the comparison or eco-labelling of product based on a single social or environmental attribute or requirement are ineffective. I think the development of S-LCA and it’s intended combination with E-LCA are effectively searching for the same answer as the European initiatives, which will likely calculate social impacts using the S-LCA methodology (or at least a significant part of it) in a sustainable product indexing label.

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