Social Life Cycle Assessment: Recognising the challenges ahead

The measurement of a product’s social impacts is a field undergoing continual evolution and development. While existing methods have been developed to capture a particular aspect or portion of a process or product lifecycle, a singular and holistic means of comparing or quantifying a products social impact remains out of reach.

In the literature, Social Life Cycle Analysis (S-LCA) has been welcomed as the tool which, by scope and definition, could provide the sought after whole of life assessment of social impact. As with environmental LCA (on which S-LCA is based) the upstream inputs to production, the conduct of these suppliers, the effects (both positive and negative) of its use and disposal are all considered – making it the most comprehensive means of evaluation possible.

However, it seems that it is this unparalleled breadth in scope that causes the methodology its difficulties. In environmental LCA, the intensity of data required has been overcome through the use of aggregated data sources, known as life cycle inventories. These inventories use economy or regional norms of upstream supply chains, input origins and raw material extraction and usage patterns to generate estimates of environmental impact across a range of categories with an astonishing accuracy. It was the development of these aggregated data sources that reduced the burden of data collection for individual product analyses and propelled environmental LCA into common use.

In parallel with continued methodological explorations, the Social Hotspots Database (SHDB) has emerged as the preeminent source of social inventory data for the implementation of S-LCA studies. The creation and aggregation of social information in this resource is impressive, covering the entire upstream supply chain of the generic output from 57 economic sectors across 113 geographic areas. Expressed in risk factors, the SHDB is designed to provide a simplified means of identifying the potential ‘hotspots’ or likely areas of social exploitation over a product lifecycle.

The application of the S-LCA methodology and the SHDB to the Bureo Minnow Skateboard Deck (a skateboard made entirely out of reclaimed fishnets in Chile) provided a means of assessing the current ability of the process to accurately describe the social impacts of a simple product. On the basis of the project results, the following conclusions were made:

  • Despite it being a stated and intended goal of the methodology, the accounting of positive benefits from a products production, use or disposal are still unable to be accounted for coherently.
  • Results from the SHDB were unreasonably dominated by a single impact category and did not cover each of the 5 identified impact categories outlined in the UNEP Methodological Guidelines.
  • No reasonable assessment of the product’s social impacts could be made due to the inability of available data to fulfil the methodological goal and scope of S-LCA.

The product of three environmentally minded surfers/skaters, the Bureo Minnow Skateboard provided an interesting product for analysis, being an inherently responsibly managed company and one providing significant social benefit in its production. However, the application of the methodology provided no means of accounting for social benefit other than an estimation of the forgone option of costs of producing an identical product through virgin materials.

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While the report was unable to provide an effective estimate of the Bureo Minnows social impacts, it does serve to highlight the endemic issues within the S-LCA methodology, providing a platform for the continued bottom-up development of the toolset. It is clear from this study that a greater exploration of the ways in which available data can be used by practitioners must be detailed in order to allow comparison among studies and also the development of industry standards and certifications.

While the SHDB is only in prototype stage – the software listing it’s version number as 0.01 – it is currently unable to accurately reflect the social impacts of a product system in its entirety. Significant development in the methodology around the accounting of usage stage social impacts is also required. Currently there are no example studies that have been able to coherently capture and report a figure or result of total product impact across an entire life cycle.

Instructional material around the SHDB is clear in its assertion that it should be used primarily in scoping situations rather than as a substitute for actual data. However, to promote the continued implementation of the methodology and ease the burden of data collection for studies, it should be a priority to improve the database in this respect. Expansions to the breadth of the inventory are currently underway along with the updating of more recent data as it becomes available.

Regardless of the identified shortcomings of the methodology and its toolkit, the SHDB remains a valuable means of scoping S-LCA studies and identifying potential ‘hotspots’ for deeper investigation.

The current ability of S-LCA to achieve its stated goals represents the biggest threat to its continued pursuit as a method of social impact measurement.  Set apart from competing methods of social impact assessment by it’s whole of life scope, S-LCA’s needs to develop the ability to account more effectively for usage stage impacts more effectively, and in doing so express them coherently with the identified impacts from other phases in the product life cycle.  The generation of a complete and aggregated figure or means of comparison is a necessary result and one that should be prioritised.

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