Relevance and feasibility of social life cycle assessment from a company perspective
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- Jørgensen, A., Hauschild, M.Z., Jørgensen, M.S. et al. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2009) 14: 204. doi:10.1007/s11367-009-0073-9
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Background, aim, and scope
Methodology development should reflect demands from the intended users: what are the needs of the user group and what is feasible in terms of requirements involving data and work? Mapping these questions of relevance and feasibility is thus a way to facilitate a higher degree of relevance of the developed methodology. For the emerging area of social life cycle assessment (SLCA), several different potential user groups may be identified. This article addresses the issues of relevance and feasibility of SLCA from a company perspective through a series of interviews among potential company users.
Methods and materials
The empirical basis for the survey is a series of eight semi-structured interviews with larger Danish companies, all of which potentially have the capacity and will to use comprehensive social assessment methodologies. SLCA is not yet a well-defined methodology, but still it is possible to outline several potential applications of SLCA and the tasks a company must be able to perform in order to make use of these applications. The interviews focus on the companies’ interest in these potential applications and their ability and willingness to undertake the required work.
Based on these interviews, three hypotheses are developed relating to these companies’ potential use of SLCA, viz.: (1) needs which may be supported by SLCA relate to three different applications, being comparative assertions, use stage assessments, and weighting of social impacts; (2) assessing the full life cycle of a product or service is rarely possible for the companies; and (3) companies see their social responsibility in the product chain as broader than dictated by the product perspective of SLCA. Trends for these three hypotheses developed on the basis of the opinions of the interviewees. Also, factors influencing the generalization of the results to cover other industries are analyzed.
Full comparative assertions as known from environmental life cycle assessment (LCA) may be difficult in a company context due to several difficulties in assessing the full life cycle. Furthermore, the comparative assertion may potentially be hampered by differences in how companies typically allocate responsibility along the product chain and how it is done in SLCA, creating a boundary setting issue. These problems do, only in a limited degree, apply for both the use stage assessment and the tool for weighting social issues.
Despite these difficulties, it is concluded that all three applications of SLCA may be possible for the interviewed companies, but it seems the tendency is to demand assessment tools with very limited life cycle perspective, which to some extent deviate from the original thought behind the LCA tools as being holistic decision aid tools.
It is advocated that there is a need to focus more on questions regarding the relevance and feasibility of SLCA from several different perspectives to direct the future methodology development.