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.
Se la Life Cycle Assessment (LCA or E-LCA, Environmental LCA) considera gli aspetti ambientali e la Social Life Cycle Assessment quelli sociali, il Life Cycle Costing completa i tre pilastri della sostenibilità considerandone gli aspetti economici. Comprendere nell’analisi tutti questi aspetti, ad esempio nella fase di sviluppo di un nuovo prodotto come strumenti di ecodesign, permette di avere un approccio olistico. Se l’approccio rivolto alla valutazione dell’intero ciclo di vita permette di evitare il burden shifting da una fase all’altra, considerare i tre prilastri della sostenibilità permette di evitare di spostare problemi da una dimensione a un’altra. È possibile infatti che decisioni che permettano ad esempio di ridurre determinati impatti ambientali, abbiano come conseguenza un aumento di rischi sociali.
Principles for applying LCSA
What are the benefits of LCSA?
The UNEP has summarized the benefits of LCSA for policy makers, stakeholders, businesses 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.
Social LCA: what is it and why use it?
The social impact of a product is increasingly shaping the choices made by many consumers in terms of their purchases, and those of companies in terms of investments and recruiting talent. Companies that manage to transparently show how ethics and social responsibility are part of every step of their supply chain now have an advantage. The understanding and management of a business's social impact is, for all intents and purposes, a new element in market positioning.
Social LCA (S-LCA) is a methodology that assesses the social and socio-economic aspects of a product or service and the potential positive and negative impact they have along the entire life cycle, from extraction of raw materials, production, distribution and use, up to end of life. While environmental impact depends on factors such as air and water pollution, social impact is inherent to the relationships between the companies or organizations involved in the life cycle and the relative stakeholders, and the relationships between the product or service and its users/consumers. Social LCA can be used on its own 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.
The use of social LCA methodology offers companies the tools they need to concretely apply their commitment to sustainability and social responsibility. It can help:
- 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
LCA and S-LCA
Social LCA, a more recent methodology compared to LCA and LCC, adheres to the structure of LCA and ISO 14040, combined with other aspects of the social sciences. Social LCA thus evaluates the social aspects that can involve stakeholders positively or negatively in the different phases of a product’s supply chain. What sets Social LCA apart from other social disciplines is the objective that’s set, aimed at products or services, and its scope, which is the entire life cycle.
Social LCA and LCA have a few aspects in common, such as the methodological structure and the iterative process accompanied by the need to have a large quantity of data to evaluate quality. In both cases, if comparative claims are made, a critical review will be necessary. One important difference between the two is the fact that, while LCA is based on quantitative data, social LCA also requires qualitative information, in a measure that varies according to the method used.
What methods are 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
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 (SHDB) makes it possible to quickly identify and thus assign priority to social risks related to supply chains through data classified by country and industry, in addition to a methodology that helps quantify social impacts. The Social Hotspot Database offers companies and organizations a concrete, transparent tool to manage operations more responsibly.
The SHDB was developed by New Earth B, a B corporation 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 of the SHDB in Italy with SimaPro, and collaborates with New Earth B to raise awareness about Social LCA.