Social Life Cycle Assessment

Social LCA is a methodology to assess social and socio-economic aspects of a product or service and their positive and negative potential impacts across the entire life cycle(e.g. raw material extraction, production, distribution, use, and end-of-life).

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Why using the Social LCA?

The use of the Social LCA methodology offers companies the tools they need to concretely apply their commitment to sustainability and social performance. It can help to:

  • Improve the understanding of the social impacts of a product along its entire life cycle and set prioriries
  • Improve the living conditions of the people and communities involved in the life cycle of the product or service
  • Compare different product systems and support differentiated, sharply targeted policies
  • Reveal opportunities that can be turned into actions and projects for improvement
  • Monitor the impact of changes and improvements along the supply chain
  • Measure social progress in relation to the projects implemented
  • If the company uses or plans to use more sustainable supplies or to implement innovation strategies, it can be useful as an evaluation tool
  • Integrate social LCA with a corporate social responsibility policy and the key performance indicators established by the company
  • Convey the social impact of the enterprise's products to promote socially responsible consumption

Regards to social impacts are increasingly counting on the purchaing choices of many consumers, of investments for companies and in the recruitment of talents. Companies that can transparently demonstrate how ethics and social responsibility are part of every step in their supply chain present an added value. The understanding and management of one's social impact is in effect a new dimension of market positioning.

While environmental impacts result from, for example, air or water emissions, social impacts are inherent in the relationships between the companies or organizations involved in the life cycle and their stakeholders and the relationships between the product or service and its users. Social LCA can be used alone or in combination with Environmental LCA and LCC.

Fourteen of the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) concern social aspects. For that reason, understanding social risks and opportunities through S-LCA can support a planned strategy that takes the SDGs into account.

LCA and S-LCA: the differences

Social LCA, a newer methodology than LCA and LCC, follows the structure of LCA and ISO 14040, paired with aspects of social sciences. Social LCA assesses the social aspects that can positively or negatively interest the stakeholders in the different phases of the supply chain of a product. What distinguishes Social LCA from other social disciplines is its objective, aimed at products or services, and its purpose, which is the entire cycle of life.

Social LCA and LCA have several common aspects, as the methodological structure and the iterative procedureaccompanied by the need for a large amount of data for which quality is assessed. In both cases, if comparative statements are made, a critical revision becomes necessary. A relevant divergency between the two is given by the fact that, while LCA is based on quantitative data, Social LCA also needs qualitative information, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the method used.

What are the benefits of LCSA?

UNEP sums up the main benefits of LCSA for decision makers, staholders, companies, and consumers, stating that it:

  • Enables practitioners to organize complex environmental, economic and social information and data in a structured form
  • Helps in clarifying the trade-offs between the three sustainability pillars, life cycle stages and impacts, by providing a more comprehensive picture of the positive and negative impacts along the product life cycle
  • Promotes awareness about environmental matters relative to all actors along the supply chain, helping them identify potential areas for improvement and spurring innovation
  • Helps enterprises raise their credibility thanks to the communication of transparent LCSA information
  • May help consumers understand which products are cost-efficient, more environmentally efficient, and socially responsible.

Environmental analysis through LCA is the most common methodology used today. However, the economic and social aspects are newcomers to the scene, though their development has been vibrant and meaningful, albeit more limited. All three approaches comply with the ISO 14040 series standards, and are characterized by the four phases of analysis: goal and scope definition, inventory analysis, life cycle impact assessment, and interpretation. Through this shared path, LCSA can be used to gain a complete, all-encompassing view of impact, and a broader vision of the ways to support far-reaching strategies.

Principles for applying LCSA

To learn more about LCSA, an article titled "Principles for the Application of Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment" published in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, is a good resource, or you can refer to our presentation, which summarizes it.
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What is LCSA (Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment)?

Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA) is the evaluation of environmental, social and economic impacts and benefits in the decision-making processes for more sustainable products along their entire life cycle.

If Life Cycle Assessment (LCA or E-LCA, Environmental LCA) considers the environmental aspects and the Social Life Cycle Assessment social ones, Life Cycle Costing completes the three pillars of sustainability evaluating economic aspects. Encompassing all these aspects in the analysis, for example in the development phase of a new product as ecodesign tools, makes a holistic approach possible. And if an approach aimed at the assessment of the entire life cycle makes it possible to avoid burden shifting from one phase to another, considering the three pillars of sustainability will avoid shifting problems from one aspect to another. After all, it is possible for decisions aimed at reducing certain environmental impacts to consequently have increased social risks, for example.

What are the methods used for Social LCA?

The Guidelines for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products were the first of their kind for S-LCA methodology, published in 2009 by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and by the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (UNEP/SETAC). It can be considered an early milestone for the methodology, reached after years of preparation and hard work. By 2003, the Life Cycle Initiative had highlighted the need to integrate social aspects into LCA.

Another important resource for S-LCA is the Product Social Impact Assessment Handbook, containing a methodology developed by a group of about 20 enterprises that, over the course of five years, collaborated as part of the Roundtable for Product Social Metrics to experience firsthand, share and improve upon a method that combined robustness and ease of use for results that can be used by companies. Pré Sustainability is the promoter of the initiative, which was launched in 2013 and has only grown since then.

In 2016, the Social Life Cycle Metrics for Chemical Products guidebook was published by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. Although focused on the application of S-LCA in the chemical industry, it’s an important reference that has also been applied to other industries.

A lot has happened in recent years. The updated version of the UNEP guidelines was published in 2020. The job of updating the guidelines, which began in 2017 under the guidance of the S-LCA Alliance, was an important development for the methodology. For example, SO-LCA (Social Organizational Life Cycle Assessment) and new sub-categories of social impact have been included. That same year, the updated edition of the Product Social Impact Assessment Handbook was published, enriched with a Social Topic Report, a Methodology Report and an Implementation Guide. In 2021, the Methodological Sheets were published, offering important support for the carrying out of analyses according to the UNEP guidelines.

Another decisive development in the methodology is ISO 14075 on S-LCA, a project launched in April 2021 that is scheduled to last 36 months.

Three key concepts of Social LCA

If you’re interested in S-LCA, keep reading to learn about the difference between a footprint, hotspot and a social handprint.
The three key concepts

Social Hotspot Database

The quantity of data required to evaluate the social risks of the entire supply chain can be massive, and they aren’t always easy to obtain. Plus, interpreting those data sets can be complicated.

The Social Hotspot Database allows toquickly identify and give priority to social risks in the supply chains through data classified per country and sector besides a methodology to quantify socila impact. The Social Hotspot Database offers to organizations and companies a concrete and trasparent tool to manage the social responsibility of one's way of operating.

SHDB was developed by NewEarth B, a B Corp company that has always played a starring role in the developments of this methodology, thanks to its founders, Greg Norris and Catherine Benoit.

2B is the exclusive distributor in Italy of the SHDB with SimaPro and collaborates with NewEarth B to raise awareness about Social LCA.

Our page on the SHDB

Go to the special SHDB section for more details or to purchase it.
Discover more about the SHDB

The 2021 ACLCA Conference and the Social LCA workshop from New Earth B and 2B

To mark the most important conference on LCA in the USA, we organized a workshop titled “Social LCAs: assessing the social impacts of products/services and organizations across their life cycle.”
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S-LCA applied to the Horizon 2020 project

2B was a partner on the Water2REturn project for the recovery and recycling of nutrients and the transformation of waste water into products that add value to the circular economy in the agricultural industry. As part of the project, 2B was the work package leader for LCA, LCC, Social LCA, risk assessment and technical-economic assessment.
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Our classes on S-LCA

In collaboration with our partner, New Earth B, for the Social Hotspot Database (SHDB), we organize classes on S-LCA that look at different phases of an assessment, including a series of practical exercises. If you’re interested, contact us to learn more about upcoming sessions.
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