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A UNEP/SETAC approach towards a life cycle sustainability assessment—our contribution to Rio+20

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To contribute to the upcoming United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in 2012 by introducing a life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) and showing how it can play a crucial role in moving towards sustainable consumption and production. The publication, titled Towards a Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment, and published by the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative aims to show how three life cycle techniques—(environmental) LCA, S-LCA and LCC—can be combined as part of an over-arching LCSA.


The method was demonstrated by evaluating the characteristics of each phase for each life cycle technique. In defining the goal and scope of an LCSA, for example, different aspects should be taken into account to establish the aim of the study as well as the functional unit, system boundaries, impact category and allocation. Then, the data to be collected for the life cycle sustainability inventory can be either in a unit process or on an organisational level. They can also be quantitative or qualitative. Life cycle sustainability impact assessment should consider the relevance of the impacts as well as the perspective of stakeholders. The interpretation should not add up the results, but rather evaluate them jointly. In order to clarify the approach, a case study is presented to evaluate three types of marble according to the proposed method.

Results and discussion

The authors have identified that while LCSA is feasible, following areas need more development: data production and acquisition, methodological development, discussion about LCSA criteria (e.g. cutoff rules), definitions and formats of communication and dissemination of LCSA results and the expansion of research and applications combining (environmental) LCA, LCC and S-LCA. The authors also indicate that it is necessary to develop more examples and cases to improve user capacity to analyse the larger picture and therefore address the three dimensions or pillars of sustainability in a systematic way. Software and database providers are called for in order to facilitate user-friendly and accessible tools to promote LCSAs.


The application demonstrated that, although methodological improvements are still needed, important steps towards an overarching sustainability assessment have been accomplished. LCSA is possible and should be pursued; however, more efforts should be made to improve the technique and facilitate the studies in order to contribute to a greener economy.

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  1. After applying cutoff criteria, system boundaries might differ from one technique to the other. For example, when looking at the life cycle of coffee (Mazijn et al. 2004), the shipping from Latin America to Europe does not have environmental relevance; however, from the S-LCA perspective, bad working conditions might be a factor.


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The authors of this article would like to thank the other co-authors of Towards a Life Cycle Assessment of Products: Walter Klöpffer, Matthias Finkbeiner, Andreas Ciroth, Siddhart Prakash and Gina Vickery-Niederman, as well as the members of the International Life Cycle Board of the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative for their support.


The designations employed and the presentation of the material in this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of the UNEP/ SETAC Life Cycle Initiative concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area or of its authorities, or concerning delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. Moreover, the views expressed do not necessarily represent the decision or the stated policy of UNEP or SETAC, nor does citing of trade names or commercial processes constitute endorsement.

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Correspondence to Sonia Valdivia.

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Responsible editor: Hanna-Leena Pesonen

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Valdivia, S., Ugaya, C.M.L., Hildenbrand, J. et al. A UNEP/SETAC approach towards a life cycle sustainability assessment—our contribution to Rio+20. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18, 1673–1685 (2013).

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