Social LCA – new agenda or old ideas?

My personal interest in social LCA go way back – to the ideas of the fair trade movement and the ideas of organic agriculture of respecting both humans and nature (my original education was as an agriculturalist).

In the 1980’ies we tried to formulate these ideas in ways that could be measured and certified. Also, the definition of “environment” in the ISO 14000 is very broad, including the human and social environment, and in line with the awareness that the problems in the outer environment cannot be solved in isolation from issues of social change (cf. World Commission on Environment and Development 1987). With a starting point in the definition of a sustainable development given by the Brundtland-commission, a number of the social indicators have now been codified in ISO 26000.

That LCA should include social issues has been part of LCA thinking from the start. The very early framework on LCA developed at the SETAC workshop in Sandestin (Fava et al. 1992) resulted in a list of social welfare impact categories. Fava et al. (1991) also mention that effects on disadvantaged groups (children, pregnant women, minorities, low-income groups, future generations) should have special attention and that the voluntary versus involuntary exposure is a relevant issue. However, the workshops did not give any solution to how these social welfare aspects could be included in a practical product assessment.

It was not until the more general interest in social issues arose with the concept of “Corporate Social Responsibility” that this also returned to the main agenda of LCA (see e.g. my 2002 presentation Quantifying Corporate Social Responsibility in the value chain to the ISO TC207 meeting in Johannesburg). In 2004, the UNEP/SETAC Task Force on the integration of social criteria into LCA was initiated, which finally resulted in the 2009 “Guidelines for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products”. In parallel to this, ISO 26000 codified “Social Responsibility” which also integrates a life cycle concern.

Right now, the largest hurdles I see for social LCA to become mainstream are 1) To obtain adequately specific and relevant data 2) To adequately describe and quantify the impact pathways to allow comparisons across impact categories.

To bring quantitative social LCA further, there are also a gap to overcome in the communication between the quantitatively focused social engineers of LCA and the often more qualitatively educated social scientists.

So while I believe there are still some hurdles to overcome, I find that by now social LCA has proven itself as a feasible and applicable method for assessing the product life cycle.

Fava, J.A., Denison, R., Jones, B., Curran, M.A., Vigon, B., Selke, S. & Barnum, J. (1991): A Technical Framework for Life-Cycle Assessments. Washington DC: Society of Env. Toxico­logy and Chemistry & SETAC Foundation for Env. Education Inc. (Workshop in Smugglers Notch, 18-23.08.1990).

Fava, J.A., Consoli, F., Denison, R., Dickson, K., Mohin, T. & Vigon, B. (1992): A conceptual framework for life-cycle impact analysis. Pensacola: SETAC Foundation for Environmental Education (Report from a workshop in Sandestin 1.-7.2.1992).

Weidema B P (2002) Quantifying Corporate Social Responsibility in the value chain. Presentation for the Life Cycle Management Workshop of the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative at the ISO TC207 meeting, Johannesburg, 2002-06-12.