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Defining the baseline in social life cycle assessment

  • Societal Life Cycle Assessment
  • Published:
The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment Aims and scope Submit manuscript


Background, aim and scope

A relatively broad consensus has formed that the purpose of developing and using the social life cycle assessment (SLCA) is to improve the social conditions for the stakeholders affected by the assessed product’s life cycle. To create this effect, the SLCA, among other things, needs to provide valid assessments of the consequence of the decision that it is to support. The consequence of a decision to implement a life cycle of a product can be seen as the difference between the decision being implemented and ‘non-implemented’ product life cycle. This difference can to some extent be found using the consequential environmental life cycle assessment (ELCA) methodology to identify the processes that change as a consequence of the decision. However, if social impacts are understood as certain changes in the lives of the stakeholders, then social impacts are not only related to product life cycles, meaning that by only assessing impacts related to the processes that change as a consequence of a decision, not all changes in the life situations of the stakeholders will be captured by an assessment following the consequential ELCA methodology. This article seeks to identify these impacts relating to the non-implemented product life cycle and establish indicators for their assessment.

Materials and methods

A conceptual overview of the non-implemented life cycle situation is established, and the impacts which may be expected from this situation are identified, based on theories and empirical findings from relevant fields of research. Where possible, indicators are proposed for the measurement of the identified impacts.


In relation to the workers in the life cycle, the non-implemented life cycle situation may lead to increased levels of unemployment. Unemployment has important social impacts on the workers; however, depending on the context, these impacts may vary significantly. The context can to some extent be identified and based on this, indicators are proposed to assess the impacts of unemployment. In relation to the product user, it was not possible to identify impacts of the non-implemented life cycle on a generic basis.


The assessment of the non-implemented life cycle situation increases the validity of the SLCA but at the same time adds a considerable extra task when performing an SLCA. It is therefore discussed to what extent its assessment could be avoided. It is argued that this depends on whether the assessment will still meet the minimum criterion for validity of the assessment, that the assessment should be better than random in indicating the decision alternative with the most favourable social impacts.


Based on this, it is concluded that the assessment of the non-implemented life cycle cannot be avoided since an assessment not taking into account the impacts of the non-implemented life cycle will not fulfil this minimum criterion.

Recommendations and perspectives

To mitigate the task of assessing the impacts of the non-implemented life cycle, new research areas are suggested, relating to simpler ways of performing the assessment as well as to investigations of whether the effect of SLCA can be created through other and potentially simpler assessments than providing an assessment of the consequences of a decision as addressed here.

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  1. For earlier work on social aspects in LCA, see Benoît and Mazijn (2009), Klöpffer and Udo de Haes (2008), Jørgensen et al. (2008, 2009a, b), Dreyer et al. (2006), Hunkeler (2006), Labuschagne and Brent (2006), Norris (2006), Weidema (2006), Gauthier (2005), Hunkeler and Rebitzer (2005), Schmidt et al. (2004), and Klöpffer (2003). The reader may also refer to the following sources: Earthster (2009), Flysjö (2006), Grießhammer et al. (2006), Manhart and Grießhammer (2006), Nazarkina and Le Bocq (2006), Barthel et al. (2005), Méthot (2005), and Spillemaeckers et al. (2004).

  2. In general, three different stakeholder groups are considered in the SLCA, being the workers throughout the life cycle, the society in which the life cycle is embedded and the product users (Jørgensen et al. 2008). Grießhammer et al. (2006) and Benoît and Mazijn (2009), however, divide this classification even further.

  3. Validity here refers to the degree of correspondence between reality and our perception of it. In line with this, an SLCA is defined as valid if it assesses what we intend it to assess, in this case the true social consequences of a decision. Validity is not to be confused with ‘reliability’, which ‘merely’ relates to reproducibility or the degree to which the result will always be the same if the assessment method is applied on the same situation. An assessment method can thereby be highly reliable without being valid, whereas the opposite is not possible (Carmines and Zeller 1979).

  4. It could be argued that the more indirect effect of SLCA mentioned above should also be accounted for as a consequence a decision may have. Assessing the consequences would therefore also include the assessment of these more indirect effects of SLCA, and the distinction introduced here will therefore be misleading. But, due to the potential complexity of identifying the indirect effects, it seems somewhat unrealistic that an assessment including these could be made.

  5. A word of caution, which should also be mentioned in this respect, is that all studies referred here were performed in the USA, Australia and EU countries. To our knowledge, no African or Asian studies have been made on the above issues. In SLCA, the assessed life cycle will often involve productions on these continents, which raises the question about the possibility of generalising the above results to these continents. Such concerns seem highly relevant, but for now, we will consider the above results as a best guess, also when it comes to countries or continents not covered by the underlying research.

  6. For the assessment to be better than ’no assessment’, it has to show the best of two alternatives more than 50% of the time. The best or right decision is the one causing the most favourable social impacts for now and within a timely limited future. The assessment has to be limited timewise, because for an assessment to show the best alternative, more than 50% of the time in a case with infinite time horizon and therefore also infinite consequences would call for an infinitely complex, and therefore also unrealisable, assessment.


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Correspondence to Andreas Jørgensen.

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Jørgensen, A., Finkbeiner, M., Jørgensen, M.S. et al. Defining the baseline in social life cycle assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 15, 376–384 (2010).

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