Enhancing comprehensive measurement of social impacts in S-LCA by including environmental and economic aspects
Measurability becomes a key question in the assessment of the sustainability of products and services. As the LCA has proven its capability of measuring environmental sustainability over the last decades, the Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA) seems promising as a way to cover the social dimension of sustainability within a similar framework. For operability reasons, working hours are commonly used as a single metric in product orientated S-LCA studies, even though major stakeholder groups are excluded by doing so. This paper shows how this shortcoming can be overcome through the introduction of the measurement of additional activity variables and explores different ways of implementing these variables.
This work suggests introducing the activity variables Biophysical Pressure and Added Value in addition to the commonly used working hours of involved labour forces. Biophysical Pressure reflects the negative influence of the degraded natural environment on the affected humans in addition to the direct health effect covered by standard LCA. Added Value represents the potential benefits for stakeholders due to financial investments in production. The new activity variables are derived from the MRIO database “Exiobase” and coupled with social risk indicators from the “Social Hotspot Database”. Finally, the qualitative risk classes are transformed to quantitative units and normalized to allow for a better interpretation and an optional aggregation of the three variables into a Final Social Impact score.
Results and discussion
In order to test the method’s applicability, the social impacts of products and services from two different product systems were calculated and compared. Three t-shirts and four residential housing heating systems were assessed by the developed method and compared on the basis of their respective functional units. Major differences between the social impact measured only by working hours and social impact measured by the aggregation of the three quantitative units were observed, especially since the Added Value (social benefits) dimension and working hours contrasted regionally. While the concept is functional, there are limitations related to the MRIO inventory data and to the interpretation of results; therefore, sensitivity analyses were applied.
The developed S-LCA method shows a promising way to extend the range of stakeholders affected by the life cycle of a distinct product by adding new variables. While constraints of MRIO data concerning detailed product system representation currently limit the approach, it allows one to identify potential social hotspots in complex product systems.
Publisher URL: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-017-1305-z
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