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A selection of safeguard subjects and state indicators for sustainability assessments



The purpose of this work is to identify and select safeguard subjects and state indicators that are suitable for sustainability assessment in product and production development, using an interpretation of the Brundtland definition of sustainable development. The purpose is also to investigate how indicators selected in this way differ from other selections in the literature.


We use a top-down approach, which starts with reviewing the Brundtland definition of sustainability and identifying the corresponding human basic needs to be satisfied. For each basic need, we identify relevant satisfiers, and for each satisfier, a number of safeguard subjects. The safeguard subjects represent critical resources for making satisfiers available. For each safeguard subject, a number of state indicators (=endpoint category indicators) are selected that are relevant for describing impacts from product life cycles on the safeguard subject.

Results and discussion

Ecosystem services, access to water, and abiotic resources are identified as environmental safeguard subjects. Technology for transports, environment, textiles, housing, food, information, and energy, together with income, are identified as economical safeguard subjects. Human health, land availability, peace, social security, continuity, knowledge, jobs/occupation, and culture are identified as social safeguard subjects. In comparison with the other selections of safeguard subjects in literature, our safeguard subjects are structured differently and delimited in scope, but there are also many similarities. The best agreement is on environmental issues, but we classify human health as a social issue. For social issues, we identify fewer safeguard subjects and state indicators than recommendations from UNEP/SETAC. For economic issues, we diverse from current LCC and approach UNECE measures of sustainability.


Identification and selection of safeguard subjects and state indicators benefit from a clear definition of sustainability, needs to be satisfied, and satisfiers. The interpretation of the sustainability concept has a large influence on which safeguard subjects that are included and which indicators that are needed to describe their state. Capacity building is an important sustainability indicator, which should be developed further for use in life cycle sustainability assessment. The top-down approach offers a good arena for a further research and discussions on how to structure and focus LCSA. Our results shall be seen as one example of which safeguard subject that may be identified with the top-down approach presented here.

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Funding from the Swedish Innovation Agency, VINNOVA, and from Chalmers Sustainable Production Initiative is greatly acknowledged.

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Correspondence to Bengt Steen.

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Responsible editor: Alessandra Zamagni

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Steen, B., Palander, S. A selection of safeguard subjects and state indicators for sustainability assessments. Int J Life Cycle Assess 21, 861–874 (2016).

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