, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 247-259
Date: 09 Feb 2010

Characterisation of social impacts in LCA

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Abstract

Background, aim, and scope

The authors have suggested earlier a framework for life cycle impact assessment to form the modelling basis of social LCA. In this framework, the fundamental labour rights were pointed out as obligatory issues to be addressed, and protection and promotion of human dignity and well-being as the ultimate goal and area of protection of social LCA. The intended main application of this framework for social LCA was to support management decisions in companies who wish to conduct business in a socially responsible manner, by providing information about the potential social impacts on people caused by the activities in the life cycle of a product. Environmental LCA normally uses quantitative and comparable indicators to provide a simple representation of the environmental impacts from the product lifecycle. This poses a challenge to the social LCA framework because due to their complexity, many social impacts are difficult to capture in a meaningful way using traditional quantitative single-criterion indicators. A salient example is the violation of fundamental labour rights (child labour, discrimination, freedom of association, and right to organise and collective bargaining, forced labour). Furthermore, actual violations of these rights somewhere in the product chain are very difficult to substantiate and hence difficult to measure directly.

Materials and methods

Based on a scorecard, a multi-criteria indicator model has been developed for assessment of a number of social impact categories. The multi-criteria indicator assesses the effort (will and ability) of a company to manage the individual issues, and it calculates a score reflecting the company’s performance in a form which allows aggregation over the life cycle of the product. The multi-criteria indicator model is presented with labour rights as an example, but the underlying principles make it suitable for modelling of other social issues with similar complexity and susceptibility to a management approach.

Results

The outcome of the scorecard is translated for each impact category through a number of steps into a company performance score, which is translated into a risk of social impacts actually occurring. This translation of the scorecard results into a company risk score that constitutes the characterisation of the developed social LCA methodology. The translation from performance score to risk involves assessment of the context of the company in terms of geographical location and industry and of the typical level of social impacts that these entail, and interpretation of the company’s management effort in the light of this context.

Discussion

The developed indicators in social LCA are discussed in terms of their ability to reflect impacts within the four obligatory impact categories representing the labour rights according to the conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) covering forced labour, discrimination, restrictions of freedom of association and collective bargaining, and child labour. Also their feasibility and the availability of the required data are discussed.

Conclusions

It is concluded that it is feasible to develop indicators and characterisation methods addressing impacts related to the four obligatory impact categories representing the labour rights. The developed indicators are judged to be both feasible and relevant, but this remains to be further investigated in a separate paper in which they are implemented and tested in six separate industrial case studies.

Recommendations and perspectives

The suitability of multi-criteria assessment methods to cover other social impacts than the obligatory ILO-based impacts is discussed, and it is argued that the combination of indirect indicators measuring a risk of impacts and direct indicators giving a direct measure of the impacts requires an explicit weighting before interpretation and possible aggregation.

Preamble: The present paper is the first in a series of two. The paper presents a characterisation model based on multi-criteria indicators representing fundamental labour rights, which is implemented in six company case studies and evaluated on this basis in the second paper (Part 2: Implementation in six company case studies).