Life cycle sustainable development: an extension of the product life cycle assessment framework to address questions of sustainable consumption and development

Norris G A, Segal J (2002)

Publication info

Pp. 193-205 in Hertwich E. (ed.): “Life-cycle approaches to sustainable consumption. Workshop proceedings.” International Institute of Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria, 2002-11-22


Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the flagship analytical tool in the Industrial Ecology “toolbox”, with a history of 30 years of practical application in both industry and government, and a global and growing body of practitioners in industry and academia.

LCA points to opportunities for:

  • consumers to select products which are “greener” (that is, less environmentally damaging from an overall perspective), and
  • producers to manufacture greener products.

The LCA approach’s initiation and development has been steered by the goal of avoiding “burden-shifting” from one environmental problem to another, or from one life cycle stage to another. Even with LCA’s challenging breadth, LCA-based inquiries can miss burden shifting within the realm of sustainable development, and can also miss opportunities for greater progress on sustainable development goals. The first required expansion is to include outcomes of an economic and social nature in addition to the current environmentally-related “Areas of Protection” which are used in LCA. The second required expansion relates to the framing of the question itself: Rather than take product-based delivery of a function as the pivot point of the analysis, we propose to quantitatively examine alternative ways that decisions alter the levels of satisfaction of fundamental and rather universal human needs for target shares of populations within societies.

In this paper we summarize the need for such an expanded framework, which we term Life Cycle Sustainable Development (LCSD). Next, we explore the feasibility of establishing an expanded set of “Areas of Protection” which address the scope of sustainable development; we suggest that one solution to this challenge may lie in recently proposed frameworks of core economic needs. Then we articulate the concept of need-required income (NRI) and summarize the results of recent analyses of NRI and its evolution over time. Finally, we propose an analytical approach for LCSD: main data sources and modeling methods which, in combination, can provide a capability for identifying and evaluating choices, from the level of individual to society, in terms of their consequences for levels of core human need satisfaction in the present and future.

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