Rigor in social life cycle assessment: improving the scientific grounding of SLCA




Social life cycle assessment (SLCA) is developing rapidly and represents a valuable complement to other life cycle methods. As methodological development continues, a growing number of case studies have noted the need for more scientific rigor in areas like data collection, allocation methods, and incorporation of values and cultural context. This work aims to identify opportunities, especially in the social sciences, to improve rigor in SLCA.


A review of existing literature and tools is based on both hand coding of the SLCA literature as represented in Web of Science’s “All Collections” database and on computer-aided review of the SLCA and other related literatures (including social impact assessment (SIA), life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA), and corporate social responsibility (CSR)) using a text mining technique known as topic modeling. Rapid diagnosing of potentially valuable contributions from literatures outside of SLCA through computer-aided review led to more detailed, manual investigation of those literatures for further insight.

Results and discussion

Data collection can benefit from increased standardization and integration with social science methods, especially frameworks for surveys and interviews. Sharing examples of questionnaires and ethics committee protocols will likely improve SLCA’s accessibility. SIA and CSR also represent empirical data sources for SLCA. Impact allocation techniques can benefit from reintegration with those in ELCA, in particular by allocating (when necessary) at facility—rather than product—level. The focus on values and subjectivity in SLCA is valuable not only for SLCA but also for other methods, most notably ELCA. Further grounding in social science is likely to improve rigor in SLCA.


SLCA is increasingly robust and contributing to interdisciplinary discussions of how best to consider social impacts. This work makes three major recommendations for continued growth: first, that SLCA standardize human subject research used for data gathering; second, that SLCA adopt allocation techniques from ELCA; and third, that SLCA continue to draw on social science and other literatures to rigorously include value systems.


Life cycle assessment (LCA) Life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) Social impact assessment (SIA) Social life cycle assessment (SLCA) Social science Values 



The contributions of several anonymous reviewers are gratefully acknowledged. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program under Grant No. DGE-114747. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Supplementary material

11367_2016_1117_MOESM1_ESM.docx (41 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 40 kb)


  1. Adamowicz W, Boxall P, Williams M, Louviere J (1998) Stated preference approaches for measuring passive use values: choice experiments and contingent valuation. Am J Agric Econ 80:64–75CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Anderson AA, Scheufele DA, Brossard D, Corley EA (2012) The Role of Media and Deference to Scientific Authority in Cultivating Trust in Sources of Information about Emerging Technologies. Int J Publ Opin Res 24:225–237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aparcana S, Salhofer S (2013) Application of a methodology for the social life cycle assessment of recycling systems in low income countries: three Peruvian case studies. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18:1116–1118CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Arcese G, Lucchetti MC, Merli R (2013) Social life cycle assessment as a management tool: methodology for application in tourism. Sustainability 5:3275–3287CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Arvidsson R, Baumann H, Hildenbrand J (2014) On the scientific justification of the use of working hours, child labour and property rights in social life cycle assessment: three topical reviews. Int J Life Cycle Assess 20:161–173CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Assael H, Keon J (1982) Nonsampling vs. Sampling Errors in Survey Research. J Mar 46:114–123CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Baumann H, Arvidsson R, Tong H, Wang Y (2013) Does the production of an airbag injure more people than the airbag saves in traffic?: opting for an empirically based approach to social life cycle assessment. J Ind Ecol 17:517–527CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Benoît C, Mazijn B, Andrews ES (2009) Guidelines for social life cycle assessment of products: social and socio-economic LCA guidelines complementing environmental LCA and Life Cycle Costing, contributing to the full assessment of goods and services within the context of sustainable development. United Nations Environment ProgrammeGoogle Scholar
  9. Benoît C, Norris GA, Valdivia S, Ciroth A, Moberg A, Bos U, Prakash S, Ugaya C, Beck T (2010) The guidelines for social life cycle assessment of products: just in time! Int J Life Cycle Assess 15:156–163CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Benoît-Norris C, Vickery-Niederman G, Valdivia S, Franze J, Traverso M, Ciroth A, Mazijn B (2011) Introducing the UNEP/SETAC methodological sheets for subcategories of social LCA. Int J Life Cycle Assess 16:682–690CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Benoit-Norris C, Norris GA, Aulisio D (2014) Efficient Assessment of Social Hotspots in the Supply Chains of 100 Product Categories Using the Social Hotspots Database. Sustainability 6:6973–6984CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bice S (2015) Bridging corporate social responsibility and social impact assessment. Impact Assess Proj Apprais 33:160–166CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Billiet J, Loosveldt G (1988) Improvement of the quality of responses to factual survey questions by interviewer training. Publ Opin Q 52:190–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Blei D, Lafferty J (2006) Correlated Topic Models. Adv Neural Inf Proces Syst 18:147Google Scholar
  15. Blei DM, Ng AY, Jordan MI (2003) Latent Dirichlet Allocation. J Mach Learn Res 3:993–1022Google Scholar
  16. Bocoum I, Macombe C, Revéret JP (2015) Anticipating Impacts on Health Based on Changes in Income Inequality Caused by Life Cycles. Int J Life Cycle Assess 20:405–417CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Bouzid A, Padilla M (2014) Analysis of Social Performance of the Industrial Tomatoes Food Chain in Algeria. New Medit: Mediterr J Econ, Agric Environ 13:60–65Google Scholar
  18. Brent A, Labuschagne C (2006) Social Indicators for Sustainable Project and Technology Life Cycle Management in the Process Industry. Int J Life Cycle Assess 11:3–15CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Burdge RJ, Vanclay F (1996) Social impact assessment: a contribution to the state of the art series. Impact Assess 14:59–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Burdge R, Fricke P, Finsterbusch K, Freudenburg W, Gramling R, Holden A, Llewellyn L, Petterson J, Thompson J, Williams G (1995) Guidelines and principles for social impact assessment. Environ Impact Assess Rev 15:11–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Chhipi-Shrestha GK, Hewage K, Sadiq R (2015) “Socializing” sustainability: a critical review on current development status of social life cycle impact assessment method. Clean Technol Environ Policy 17:579–596CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Choi BC, Pak AW (2005) A catalog of biases in questionnaires. Prev Chronic Dis 2:A13Google Scholar
  23. Cloquell-Ballester VA, Cloquell-Ballester VA, Monterde-Díaz R, Santamarina-Siurana MC (2006) Indicators validation for the improvement of environmental and social impact quantitative assessment. Environ Impact Assess Rev 26:79–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Cohen G, Forbes J, Garraway M (1996) Can different patient satisfaction survey methods yield consistent results? Comparison of three surveys. BMJ 313:841–844CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Dreyer LC, Hauschild MZ, Schierbeck J (2010) Characterisation of social impacts in LCA. Part 2: implementation in six company case studies. Int J Life Cycle Assess 15:385–402CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Ekener-Petersen E, Finnveden G (2013) Potential hotspots identified by social LCA—part 1: a case study of a laptop computer. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18:127–143CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Ekener-Petersen E, Moberg Å (2013) Potential hotspots identified by social LCA–Part 2: reflections on a study of a complex product. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18:144–154CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Ekener-Petersen E, Höglund J, Finnveden G (2014) Screening potential social impacts of fossil fuels and biofuels for vehicles. Energy Policy 73:416–426CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Feschet P, Macombe C, Garrabé M, Loeillet D, Saez AR, Benhmad F (2013) Social impact assessment in LCA using the Preston pathway: the case of banana industry in Cameroon. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18:490–503CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Foolmaun RK, Ramjeeawon T (2013) Comparative life cycle assessment and social life cycle assessment of used polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles in Mauritius. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18:155–171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Franze J, Ciroth A (2011) A comparison of cut roses from Ecuador and the Netherlands. Int J Life Cycle Assess 16:366–379CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Freeman RE (1984) Strategic management: a stakeholder approach. Cambridge University PressGoogle Scholar
  33. Freudenburg WR (1986) Social Impact Assessment. Annu Rev Sociol 12:451–478CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Groves RM, Fowler, FJ, Couper MP, Lepkowski JM, Singer E, Tourangeau R (2011) Survey Methodology. John Wiley & SonsGoogle Scholar
  35. Hanley N, Wright RE, Adamowicz V (1998) Using Choice Experiments to Value the Environment. Environ Resource Econ 11:413–428CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hauschild MZ, Dreyer LC, Jørgensen A (2008) Assessing social impacts in a life cycle perspective—Lessons learned. CIRP Ann Manuf Technol 57:21–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Hayashi K, Sato M, Darnhofer I, Grötzer M (2010) Farmers’ responses to social impact indicators for agricultural and community practices: a case study of organic rice production in Japan. 9th European IFSA Symposium, Vienna, pp 4–7Google Scholar
  38. Higgins C, Milne M, Gramberg B (2015) The Uptake of Sustainability Reporting in Australia. J Bus Ethics 129:445–468CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Hosseinijou SA, Mansour S, Shirazi MA (2014) Social life cycle assessment for material selection: a case study of building materials. Int J Life Cycle Assess 19:620–645CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Hunkeler D (2006) Societal LCA Methodology and Case Study (12 pp). Int J Life Cycle Assess 11:371–382CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Iofrida N, De Luca AI, Strano A, Gulisano G (2014) Social Life Cycle Assessment in a constructivist realism perspective: a methodological proposal. In: Macombe C and Loeillet D (eds). Social LCA in progress. Pre-Proceedings of the 4th International Seminar in Social LCA. Montpellier, France, November 19–21 2014, ISNN 1256–5458Google Scholar
  42. ISO 14040:2006 (2006) Environmental management -- Life cycle assessment -- Principles and framework. Accessed 28 June 2015
  43. ISO 14044:2006 (2006) Environmental management -- Life cycle assessment -- Requirements and guidelines. Accessed 28 June 2015
  44. Jenkins H, Yakovleva N (2006) Corporate social responsibility in the mining industry: exploring trends in social and environmental disclosure. J Clean Prod 14:271–284CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Jockers M (2011) The LDA Buffet Is Now Open; Or, Latent Dirichlet Allocation for English Majors. Stanford University. Accessed 26 May 2015
  46. Johnson TP, O’Rourke D, Burris J, Owens L (2002) Culture and survey nonresponse. Survey nonresponse 55–69Google Scholar
  47. Jørgensen A, Le Bocq A, Nazarkina L, Hauschild M (2008) Methodologies for social life cycle assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 13:96–103CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Karnani A (2007) Doing well by doing good—case study: “Fair & Lovely” whitening cream. Strateg Manag J 28:1351–1357CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Kirsch S (2010) Experiments in Engaged Anthropology. Collab Anthropol 3:69–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Korhonen J (2003) Should we measure corporate social responsibility? Corp Soc Responsib Environ Manag 10:25–39CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Krosnick JA (1999) Survey Research. Annu Rev Psychol 50:537–567CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Lehmann A, Russi D, Bala A, Finkbeiner M, Fullana-i-Palmer P (2011) Integration of Social Aspects in Decision Support, Based on Life Cycle Thinking. Sustainability 3:562–577CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Lehmann A, Zschieschang E, Traverso M, Finkbeiner M, Schebek L (2013) Social aspects for sustainability assessment of technologies—challenges for social life cycle assessment (SLCA). Int J Life Cycle Assess 18:1581–1592CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Lindblom CE, Cohen DK (1979). Usable knowledge: social science and social problem solving. Yale University PressGoogle Scholar
  55. Lockie S, Franettovich M, Petkova-Timmer V, Rolfe J, Ivanova G (2009) Coal mining and the resource community cycle: a longitudinal assessment of the social impacts of the Coppabella coal mine. Environ Impact Assess Rev 29:330–339CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Luthe T, Kägi T, Reger J (2013) A systems approach to sustainable technical product design: combining life cycle assessment and virtual development in the case of skis. J Ind Ecol 17:605–617CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Macombe C, Leskinen P, Feschet P, Antikainen R (2013) Social life cycle assessment of biodiesel production at three levels: a literature review and development needs. J Clean Prod 52:205–216CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Manik Y, Leahy J, Halog A (2013) Social life cycle assessment of palm oil biodiesel: a case study in Jambi Province of Indonesia. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18:1386–1392CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Martínez-Blanco J, Lehmann A, Muñoz P, Antón A, Traverso M, Rieradevall J, Finkbeiner M (2014) Application challenges for the social Life Cycle Assessment of fertilizers within life cycle sustainability assessment. J Clean Prod 69:34–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Mathe S (2014) Integrating participatory approaches into social life cycle assessment: the SLCA participatory approach. Int J Life Cycle Assess 19:1506–1514CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. McCallum AK (2002) MALLET: a Machine Learning for Language Toolkit. Accessed 26 May 2015
  62. McGorry SY (2000) Measurement in a cross-cultural environment: survey translation issues. Qual Mark Res 3:74–81CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Mertens DM (2007) Transformative paradigm: mixed methods and social justice. J Mixed Methods Res 1:212–225CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Musaazi MK, Mechtenberg AR, Nakibuule J, Sensenig R, Miyingo E, Makanda JV, Hakimian A, Eckelman MJ (2015) Quantification of social equity in life cycle assessment for increased sustainable production of sanitary products in Uganda. J Clean Prod 96:569–579CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Neugebauer S, Traverso M, Scheumann R, Chang YJ, Wolf K, Finkbeiner M (2014) Impact Pathways to Address Social Well-Being and Social Justice in SLCA—Fair Wage and Level of Education. Sustainability 6:4839–4857CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Norris GA (2006) Social Impacts in Product Life Cycles - Towards Life Cycle Attribute Assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess. doi: 10.1065/lca2006.04.017 Google Scholar
  67. O’Brien M, Doig A, Clift R (1996) Social and environmental life cycle assessment (SELCA). Int J Life Cycle Assess 11:97–104Google Scholar
  68. Ottinger G (2013) Refining expertise: how responsible engineers subvert environmental justice challenges. NYU Press, New YorkCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Parent J, Cucuzzella C, Revéret JP (2010) Impact assessment in SLCA: sorting the sLCIA methods according to their outcomes. Int J Life Cycle Assess 15:164–171CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Parent J, Cucuzzella C, Revéret JP (2013) Revisiting the role of LCA and SLCA in the transition towards sustainable production and consumption. Int J Life Cycle Assess 18:1642–1652CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Patterson FD, Neailey K (2002) A Risk Register Database System to aid the management of project risk. Int J Proj Manag 20:365–374CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Peck P, Sinding K (2003) Environmental and social disclosure and data richness in the mining industry. Bus Strateg Environ 12:131–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Pizzirani S, McLaren SJ, Seadon JK (2014) Is there a place for culture in life cycle sustainability assessment? Int J Life Cycle Assess 19:1316–1330CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Presser S, Couper MP, Lessler JT, Martin E, Martin J, Rothgeb JM, Singer E (2004) Methods for Testing and Evaluating Survey Questions. Publ Opin Q 68:109–130CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Ramirez PKS, Petti L, Haberland NT, Ugaya CML (2014) Subcategory assessment method for social life cycle assessment. Part 1: methodological framework. Int J Life Cycle Assess 19:1515–1523CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Reitinger C, Dumke M, Barosevcic M, Hillerbrand R (2011) A conceptual framework for impact assessment within SLCA. Int J Life Cycle Assess 16:380–388CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Schaeffer NC, Presser S (2003) The Science of Asking Questions. Annu Rev Sociol 29:65–88CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Schuldt JP, Konrath SH, Schwarz N (2011) “Global warming” or “climate change”?: whether the planet is warming depends on question wording. Publ Opin Q 75:115–124CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Schuldt JP, Roh S, Schwarz N (2015) Questionnaire design effects in climate change surveys: implications for the partisan divide. Ann Am Acad Polit Soc Sci 658:67–85CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Sen A (1999) Development as Freedom. Oxford University PressGoogle Scholar
  81. Slovic P, Layman M, Kraus N, Flynn J, Chalmers J, Gesell G (1991) Perceived risk, stigma, and potential economic impacts of a high-level nuclear waste repository in Nevada. Risk Anal 11:683–696CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Tourangeau R, Smith TW (1996) Asking sensitive questions the impact of data collection mode, question format, and question context. Publ Opin Q 60:275–304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Tukker A (2000) Life cycle assessment as a tool in environmental impact assessment. Environ Impact Assess Rev 20:435–456CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Umair S, Björklund A, Petersen EE (2015) Social impact assessment of informal recycling of electronic ICT waste in Pakistan using UNEP SETAC guidelines. Resour Conserv Recycl 95:46–57CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  85. Vanclay F (2002) Conceptualising social impacts. Environ Impact Assess Rev 22:183–211CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Vanclay F (2006) Principles for social impact assessment: a critical comparison between the international and US documents. Environ Impact Assess Rev 26:3–14CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Vavra J, Bednarikova M (2013) Application of social life cycle assessment in Metallurgy. METAL 2013: 22nd International Conference on Metallurgy and MaterialsGoogle Scholar
  88. Villar A, Krosnick JA (2011) Global warming vs. climate change, taxes vs. prices: does word choice matter? Clim Chang 105:1–12CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Walker G (2010) Environmental justice, impact assessment and the politics of knowledge: the implications of assessing the social distribution of environmental outcomes. Environ Impact Assess Rev 30:312–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  90. Webler T, Lord F (2010) Planning for the Human Dimensions of Oil Spills and Spill Response. Environ Manag 45:723–738CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Willams TM (1994) Using a risk register to integrate risk management in project definition. Int J Proj Manag 12:17–22CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Wolsink M (1988) The social impact of a large wind turbine. Environ Impact Assess Rev 8:323–334CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Wu R, Yang D, Chen J (2014) Social Life Cycle Assessment Revisited. Sustainability 6:4200–4226CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Yu X (2008) Impacts of corporate code of conduct on labor standards: a case study of Reebok’s athletic footwear supplier factory in China. J Bus Ethics 81:513–529CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and ResourcesStanford UniversityStanfordUSA

Personalised recommendations