New Study Measures Life Cycle Social Impacts
A KTH research group has completed a Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA) of a laptop computer. Going beyond the traditional LCA’s focus on environmental impacts over a product’s lifetime, this emerging new model studies a broader range of effects on human well-being. It’s the first peer-reviewed study to test social LCA on a complex product.
Life Cycle Assessment has emerged in recent decades as one of the most important tools available to sustainability planners looking to reduce environmental impacts from the production and consumption of goods changing hands in our increasingly globalised economy. Also known as ecobalance or cradle-to-grave analysis, the LCA quantifies such factors as energy consumption, hazardous waste generation and pollution all the way from raw material extraction and transportation through manufacturing, use and final disposal of a product.
LCAs are now commonly used by companies aiming to reduce harm to the environment, and they often influence legislation, international law, urban planning and even personal lifestyle choices. But since the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations and governments around the world have expanded the concept of sustainability to include not only environmental, but also economic and social impacts of production and consumption. The publication in 2009 of “Guidelines for social life cycle assessment of products” by the UN Environment Programme marked the beginning of an expanded role for the LCA.
Now, for the first time in a peer-reviewed journal, KTH researchers have published a social LCA for a complex product.
The new two-part study, “Potential hotspots identified by social LCA,” evaluated impacts on human well-being throughout the lifecycle of a generic laptop computer. The papers are presented in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.
The product system included material extraction, processing of raw materials, production and assembly, marketing and sales, use and disposal. A specific aim of the study was to identify social “hotspots” to better understand where and when negative social impacts occur in the laptop’s production systems. These potential social impacts included safety and health, social security, involvement in armed conflicts, community engagement, corruption and others.
“Despite difficulties with data collection and issues of reliability of indicators, we demonstrated that it’s possible to conduct a social life cycle assessment on a complex product. Our study delivered unexpected results and more detailed information than one would expect,” says Elisabeth Ekener-Petersen, researcher at the KTH Centre for Sustainable Communications.
“When comparing countries where workers and the local community are at risk for severe negative social impacts, it was, surprisingly, countries such as Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Russia that were identified as hotspots,” Ekener-Petersen says.
In the general debate on social risks in the supply chain, these countries are seldom mentioned. For example, Brazil is a prime hotspot in the resource extraction phase, an indication of potential negative social impacts such as long working hours for workers at mining sites, delocalization of communities and a lack of concern for indigenous rights.
“If social LCA can highlight otherwise neglected hotspots, it’s of great value for companies that are interested in improving their supply chain management,” says Catherine Karagianni, Manager for Environmental and Sustainable Development at TeliaSonera in Sweden.
“We argue that it’s important to include also social aspects when making sustainability assessments of products and services,” says Professor Göran Finnveden, co-author of the study presented in two papers.
The research team employed the “Guidelines for social life cycle assessment of products” developed by the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative. The study received financial support from Vinnova (the Swedish Governmental Agency for Innovation Systems), and partners of KTH’s Centre for Sustainable Communications.
By Bernhard Huber. Edited by Kevin Billinghurst.