Social Impacts in Product Life Cycles – Towards Life Cycle Attribute Assessment

Norris G A (2006)

Publication info

International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 11(1):97-104

Background, Aims and Scope

Social impacts in supply chains and product life cycles are of increasing interest to policy makers and stakeholders. Work is underway to develop social impact indicators for LCA, and to identify the social inventory data that will drive impact assessment for this category. Standard LCA practice collects and aggregates inventory data of the form \units of input or output (elementary flow) per unit of process output.\ Measurement of social impacts within workplaces as well as host communities and societies poses new challenges not heretofore faced by LCA database developers. Participatory measurement and auditing of social impacts and of workplace health issues has been shown to provide important benefits relative to external auditor-based methods, including greater likelihood of detecting rights abuses, and stronger support of subsequent action for improvement. However, nonstandardized auditing and metrics poses challenges for the supply chain-wide aggregation and comparison functions of LCA. An analogous challenge arises in the case of resource extractive processes, for which the certification of best management practices provides an important and practical environmental metric. In both the social and resource extraction examples, it may be that attributes of the process are more valuable metrics to measure and incentivize than measured quantities per unit of process output. But how to measure, how to aggregate across life cycles, how to compare product life cycles, and how to incentivize progress as with product policy?


A methodology is presented and demonstrated which estimates the health impacts of economic development stemming from product life cycles. This methodology does not introduce new social indicators; rather, it works with the already common LCA endpoint of human health, and introduces and applies a simplified empirical relationship to characterize the complex pathways from product life cycles’ economic activity to health in the aggregate.


A simple case study indicates that the health benefits of economic development impacts in product life cycles have the potential to be very significant, possibly even orders of magnitude greater than the health damages from the increased pollution. While the simple macro model points up the dramatic importance of socio-economic pathways to health in product life cycles, it lacks any sensitivity to the vitally important, contextspecific attributes of the economic development associated with each process. This result begs the question of how to measure, aggregate, compare, and stimulate society-wide improvement of context-dependent attributes within and across product life cycles in LCA.


Before attempting an answer to the question noted above, a brief reconsideration is offered concerning life cycle assessment. Namely, where does it come from, and what does it bring?

Recommendations and Outlook

Finally, the paper concludes by sketching a life cycle approach to promoting localized assessments, to summarizing their results over supply chains and life cycles, and to comparing product life cycles in terms of their results. Often, localized assessments will yield information on the attributes of a process, rather than (or in addition to) the traditional form of life cycle inventory information, which is \units of something per unit of process output.\ The methodology can enable product policy users to promote reporting of basic attributes of processes within supply chains, together with local measurement and reporting of context-relevant impacts. For attributes linked to progress on impacts of local and global concern, promotion of these attributes within supply chain processes will bring strong benefits. In addition, over time it may be possible for researchers to develop and refine models that estimate, based on cross-sectional and time series analysis of attributes and impacts, relationships between attributes and impacts. In any case, while local impacts across supply chains may not be precisely knowable – let alone controllable – by a microdecision maker at the time of their product-related decision, life cycle attribute analysis may give such decision makers an opportunity to empower progress throughout life cycles and supply chains, which is after all a motivating goal of LCA.

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