The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment

, Volume 18, Issue 9, pp 1653–1672

Progress in sustainability science: lessons learnt from current methodologies for sustainability assessment: Part 1

  • Serenella Sala
  • Francesca Farioli
  • Alessandra Zamagni

DOI: 10.1007/s11367-012-0508-6

Cite this article as:
Sala, S., Farioli, F. & Zamagni, A. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2013) 18: 1653. doi:10.1007/s11367-012-0508-6



Sustainability Science (SS) is considered an emerging discipline, applicative and solution-oriented whose aim is to handle environmental, social and economic issues in light of cultural, historic and institutional perspectives. The challenges of the discipline are not only related to better identifying the problems affecting sustainability but to the actual transition towards solutions adopting an integrated, comprehensive and participatory approach. This requires the definition of a common scientific paradigm in which integration and interaction amongst sectorial disciplines is of paramount relevance. In this context, life cycle thinking (LCT) and, in particular, life cycle-based methodologies and life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) may play a crucial role. The paper illustrates the main challenges posed to sustainability assessment methodologies and related methods in terms of ontology, epistemology and methodology of SS. The aims of the analysis are twofold: (1) to identify the main features of methodologies for sustainability assessment and (2) to present key aspects for the development of robust and comprehensive sustainability assessment.


The current debate on SS addressing ontological, epistemological and methodological aspects has been reviewed, leading to the proposal of a conceptual framework for SS. In addition, a meta-review of recent studies on sustainability assessment methodologies and methods, focusing those life cycle based, supports the discussion on the main challenges for a comprehensive and robust approach to sustainability assessment. Starting from the results of the meta-review, we identified specific features of sustainable development-oriented methods: firstly, highlighting key issues towards robust methods for SS and, secondly, capitalising on the findings of each review’s paper. For each issue, a recommendation towards a robust sustainability assessment method is given. Existing limitations of sectorial academic inquiries and proposal for better integration and mainstreaming of SS are the key points under discussion.


In the reviewed papers, LCT and its basic principles are acknowledged as relevant for sustainability assessment. Nevertheless, LCT is not considered as a reference approach in which other methods could also find a place. This aspect has to be further explored, addressing the lack of multi-disciplinary exchange and putting the mainstreaming of LCT as a priority on the agenda of both life cycle assessment and sustainability assessment experts. Crucial issues for further developing sustainability assessment methodologies and methods have been identified and can be summarised as follows: holistic and system wide approaches, shift from multi- towards trans-disciplinarity; multi-scale (temporal and geographical) perspectives; and better involvement and participation of stakeholders.


Those are also the main challenges posed to LCSA in terms of progress of ontology, epistemology and methodology in line with the progress of SS. The life cycle-based methodologies should be broadened from comparing alternatives and avoiding negative impacts, to also proactively enhancing positive impacts, and towards the achievement of sustainability goals.


Life cycle assessment Life cycle sustainability assessment Life cycle thinking Science–policy interface Sustainability assessment Sustainability science 

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Serenella Sala
    • 1
  • Francesca Farioli
    • 2
    • 3
  • Alessandra Zamagni
    • 4
  1. 1.Sustainability Assessment UnitEuropean Commission Joint Research Centre, Institute for Environment and SustainabilityIspraItaly
  2. 2.Interuniversity Research Centre on Sustainable Development (CIRPS)Sapienza Università di RomaRomeItaly
  3. 3.Department Mechanical and Aerospace EngineeringSapienza Università di RomaRomeItaly
  4. 4.LCA and Ecodesign LaboratoryItalian National Agency for new Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Economic Development (ENEA)BolognaItaly

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