Skip to main content

A conceptual framework for impact assessment within SLCA



This paper aims at spelling out the area of protection (AoP), namely the general concept of human well-being and the impact categories in social life cycle assessment (SLCA). The applicability of the so-called capabilities approach—a concept frequently used for evaluating human lives—is explored. It is shown how the principles of the capabilities approach can be transferred to the impact assessment within SLCA.


The literature concerning the AoP and the impact assessment has been critically reviewed from an applied philosophy perspective. The capabilities approach has been adopted for defining both the AoP and the impact categories.


The main results are the following: (1) The AoP is defined as autonomy, well-being freedom and fairness; (2) using the dimensions which constitute well-being together with the concept of fairness eight impact categories are proposed: life, knowledge and aesthetic experience, work and play, friendship, self-integration, self-expression, transcendence and fairness itself and (3) by examining the ‘Guide to Social LCA: Methodological Sheets’, it is demonstrated that our proposed framework can be used for structuring the previous work on impact assessment.


The capability approach is one possibility for addressing the question ‘what is of importance in a human life?’ When applied in a practical field, like SLCA, this framework is not only useful for structuring data but also for disclosing our own normative assumptions about what counts as valuable in a human life. Thus, the normative evaluation is more coherent.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1


  1. Our framework is not designed for resolving the questions about the appropriate level of analysis for SLCA.

  2. In other areas of political decision making, this recently has led to a discussion about more sophisticated measures for human well-being. A notable indicator used by the United Nations is the Human Development Index (HDI). This indicator builds upon Sen’s capability approach as it is used in this paper. More sophisticated measurements, however, face the problem, they rely on a huge amount of data, which are often not available or updated.

  3. This criticism led to the development of other measurement tools, like the HDI or the Gross Happiness Index.

  4. What a person is actually able to do and to be is of course not only a question of her resources, but hinges on a number of conditions including societal factors, the environment, her biological predispositions, etc.

  5. For the purpose of evaluating justice, two roles of freedom have to be distinguished: a process aspect and an opportunity aspect. Since we cannot deal with this in detail now, see Sen 2009, 228–232; Sen 1992, 18f.

  6. Many people value things or actions that have adverse effects on their well-being, e.g., they choose to smoke and risk their health. Therefore, the relation between the full range of action and the actions conducive to a person’s well-being is a topic Sen has repeatedly returned to, contrasting “agency-freedom” with “well-being-freedom” (Sen 2009). The capabilities approach is not from the outset limited to assessing well-being, but takes into account all the functionings a person may have reason to value.


  • Alkire S (2002a) Dimensions of human development. World Dev 30(2):181–205

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Alkire S (2002b) Valuing freedoms: Sen’s capability approach and poverty reduction. Oxford University Press, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Benoît C, Mazijn B (eds) (2009) Guidelines for social life cycle assessment of products. Accessed 1 Oct 2010

  • Benoît C et al (2010) The guidelines for social life cycle assessment of products: just in time! Int J Life Cycle Assess 15(1):156–163

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Comim F, Tsutsumi R, Varea A (2007) Choosing a sustainable consumption: a capability perspective on indicators. J Int Dev 19:493–509

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • De Vries B, Peterson A (2009) Conceptualizing sustainable development: an assessment methodology connecting values, knowledge, world views and scenarios. Ecol Econ 68(4):1006–1019

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dreyer L, Hauschild M, Schierbeck J (2006) A framework for social life cycle impact assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 11(2):88–97

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Finis J, Grisez G, Boyle J (1987) Practical principles, moral truth & ultimate ends. Am J Jurisprud 32:99–151

    Google Scholar 

  • Grießhammer R, Benoît C, Dreyer LC, Flysjö A, Manhart A, Mazijn B, Méthot AL, Weidma B (2006) Feasibility study: integration of social impacts into LCA. Accessed 1 Oct 2010

  • Holland B (2008) Justice and the environment in Nussbaum’s capabilities approach. Polit Res Q 61(2):319–332

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jørgensen A, Le Bocq A, Nazarkina L, Hauschild M (2008) Methodologies for social life cycle assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 13(11):96–103

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jørgensen A, Lai L, Hauschild M (2010) Assessing the validity of impact pathways for child labour and well-being in social life cycle assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 15(1):5–16

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Klöpffer W (2003) Life-cycle based methods for sustainable product development. Int J Life Cycle Assess 8(3):157–159

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Klöpffer W (2008) Life cycle sustainability of products (with comments by Helias A. Udo de Haes). Int J Life Cycle Assess 13(2):89–95

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Life Cycle Initiative (2010) Guide to social LCA: methodological sheets. Accessed 1 Oct 2010

  • Omann I, Rauschmayer F, Frühmann J (2010) Sustainable development: capabilities. Needs and well-being. Taylor & Francis, London

    Google Scholar 

  • Ott K, Döring R (2008) Theorie und Praxis starker Nachhaltigkeit. Metropolis, Marburg

    Google Scholar 

  • Schultz J, Brand F, Kopfmüller J, Ott K (2008) Building a ‚theory of sustainable development’: to salient conceptions within the German discourse. Int J Environ Sust Dev 7(4):465–482

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sen A (1992) Development as freedom. Anchor, New York

    Google Scholar 

  • Sen A (2005) Human rights and capabilities. J Hum Dev 6(2):151–166

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Sen A (2009) The idea of justice. Harvard University Press, Harvard

    Google Scholar 

  • Udo de Haes HA, Jolliet O, Finnveden G, Hauschild M, Krewitt W, Müller-Wenk R (1999) Best available practice regarding impact categories and category indicators in life cycle impact assessment. Background document for the second working group (WIA-2) on life cycle impact assessment of SETAC-Europe. Int J Life Cycle Assess 4(2):66–74

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Van Ootegem L, Spillemaeckers S (2009) A capabilities approach on well-being and sustainable development. Accessed 1 Oct 2010

  • Weidema B (2006) The integration of economic and social aspects in life cycle impact assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 11(1):89–96

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Claudia Reitinger.

Additional information

Responsible editor: Thomas Swarr

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Reitinger, C., Dumke, M., Barosevcic, M. et al. A conceptual framework for impact assessment within SLCA. Int J Life Cycle Assess 16, 380–388 (2011).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Area of protection (AoP)
  • Capabilities approach
  • Impact assessment
  • Impact categories
  • Social life cycle assessment (SLCA)
  • Well-being