A historical perspective on the engineering ideologies of sustainability: the case of SLCA

  • Nicholas Sakellariou



The 1990s produced two distinct engineering ideologies of sustainability—one emphasizing engineering innovation and the other emphasizing socio-cultural change. The technological change ideology of sustainability refers to engineering reform controlled and directed by engineers themselves—in other words, technological practices can be improved through the application of expertise. The technopolitics’ ideology of sustainability is about engineering challenge; it places more emphasis on the devolution of expertise from the existing model of engineering and society, and it questions the dominant values of engineering practice. In this article, I present a historico-philosophical perspective on the development of social life cycle assessment (SLCA) to highlight how the dialectic between sustainability and engineering has been defined largely by the ideology of technological change.


I provide original historical evidence regarding the roles of key actors and institutions in fitting the life cycle perspective and corporate social responsibility (CSR) into sustainable development. Primary data for this chapter is based on archival materials as well as on 30, in depth, semi-structured interviews with North American and European LCA and SLCA experts. Other primary data were collected from participant observation in SLCA webinars and workshops.

Results and discussion

Technology is at the heart of SLCA—it is a shared faith in technology as the solution. At the same time, there is growing appreciation amongst SLCA proponents that such technology must be construed more critically. Although it remains a subaltern current within LCA, SLCA is evidence of how technological change and technopolitics are starting to converge and influence each other—a probe toward a more reflective form of engineering discourse and toward the formation of a new hybrid sustainability ideology.


SLCA, I argue in this article, is an ideological hybrid where there are many spots of dissent and disagreement but also some surprising fundamental alignments between those who see engineering as techniques and those who believe that engineering needs to be socially and politically contextualized. Yet, even as the concepts of sustainable development, CSR, and LCA provide the intellectual and institutional mold within which SLCA becomes conceivable, these concepts may also obscure the historicity of sustainability engineering.


Engineering History Ideology LCA SLCA Social Sustainability 


  1. AIChE (2002) Statement on Sustainable Engineering Forum of AIChE Ideas and Scope. Accessed 20 January 2014
  2. Andersson K, Høgaas Eide M, Lundqvist U, Mattsson B (1998) The feasibility of including sustainability in LCA for product development. J Clean Prod 6:289–298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Andrews E, Lesage P, Benoît C, Parent J, Norris G, Revéret JP (2009) Life cycle attribute assessment: case study of Quebec greenhouse tomatoes. J Ind Ecol 13:565–578CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Antonsson AB, Carlsson H (1995) The basis for a method to integrate work environment in life cycle assessments. J Clean Prod 3:215–220CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. 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
  6. Bernow SS, Raskin PD (1976) Ecology of scientific consciousness. Telos 28:55–80Google Scholar
  7. Burkhardt H, Vanderburg WH (1991) Preparing for a sustainable society. IEEE Technol Soc Mag 10:6–8CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Clift R, Morris N (2002) Sustainable development: engineering with a human face. Emg-Eng Manag J 12:226–230Google Scholar
  9. Coates GH (1993) Facilitating sustainable development: role of engineer. J Prof Iss Eng Ed Pr 119:225–229CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Dreyer LC (2009) Inclusion of social aspects in life cycle assessment of products: development of a methodology for social life cycle assessment. Dissertation, Technical University of DenmarkGoogle Scholar
  11. Elkington J (2004) Enter the triple bottom line. In: Henriques A, Richardson J (eds) The triple bottom line, does it all add up? Assessing the sustainability of business and CSR. Sterling, Virginia, pp. 1–16Google Scholar
  12. Ember LR (1991) Environment protection: global companies set new endeavor. Chem Eng News 69:4Google Scholar
  13. Garcia-Johnson R (2000) Exporting environmentalism. U.S. multinational chemical corporations in Brazil and Mexico. The MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  14. Global Reporting Initiative (2013) G4 sustainability reporting guidelines: reporting principles and standard disclosures. GRI, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
  15. Hauschild MZ, Dreyer LC, Jørgensen A (2008) Assessing social impacts in life cycle perspective—lessons learned. CIRP Ann-Manuf Techn 57:21–24CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Hauschild M, Wenzel H (1998) Environmental assessment of products. Vols. 1 and 2. Chapman and Hall, LondonGoogle Scholar
  17. Hofstetter P (1998) Perspectives in life cycle impact assessment: a structured approach to combine models of the technosphere, ecosphere and valuesphere. Dissertation, Swiss Federal Institute of TechnologyGoogle Scholar
  18. Holliday CO, Schmidheiny S, Watts P (2002) Walking the talk: the business case for sustainable development. Berrett-Koehler, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  19. IChemE (2002) The sustainability metrics: sustainable development progress metrics recommended for use in the process industries. Institution of Chemical Engineers, WarwickshireGoogle Scholar
  20. Institute of Social and Ethical AccountAbility (1999) AA1000 framework. ISEA, LondonGoogle Scholar
  21. Klöpffer W (2003) Life-cycle based methods for sustainable product development. Int J Life Cycle Assess 8:157–159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Labuschagne C, Brent AC, van Erck R (2005) Assessing the sustainability performances of industries. J Clean Prod 13:373–385CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Levy DL, Szejnald Brown H, de Jong M (2010) The contested politics of corporate governance: the case of the global reporting initiative. Bus Soc 49:88–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Life Cycle Initiative (2009) Guidelines for social life cycle assessment of products. UNEP, ParisGoogle Scholar
  25. Massie RK (1997) Poetry of the Possible. ManuscriptGoogle Scholar
  26. Musaazi MK, Mechtenberg AR, Nakibuule J, Eckelman MJ (2013) Quantification of social equity in life cycle assessment for increased sustainable production of sanitary products in Uganda. J Clean Prod 96:569–579CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Nordic Council of Ministers (1992) Product life-cycle assessment-principles and methodology. Nord 1992, 9th Nordic Council of Ministers, CopenhagenGoogle Scholar
  28. O’Brien M, Doig A, Clift R (1996) Social and environmental life cycle assessment (SELCA): approach and methodological development. Int J Life Cycle Assess 1:231–237CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Öko-Institut (1987) Produktlinienanalyse. Kölner Volksblatt Verlag, CologneGoogle Scholar
  30. Piper L, Ryding SO, Henricson C (2003) Continual improvement with ISO 14000. SINF miljö& kvalitet AB, StockholmGoogle Scholar
  31. Rada RJ, Caldeira-Pires A, Benoît C, Pena AC (2011) Environmental indicators align with integral sustainability: the Chilean copper ongoing process. International Journal for Sustainable Innovations 1:16–21Google Scholar
  32. Raskin P, Banuri T, Gallopín G, Gutman P, Hammond A, Kates R, Swart R (2002) Great transition. The promise and lure and the times ahead. Stockholm Environment Institute-Boston, BostonGoogle Scholar
  33. Reitinger C, Dumke M, Barosevcic M, Hillerbrand R (2001) A conceptual framework for impact assessment within SLCA. Int J Life Cycle Assess 16:380–388CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Sala S, Farioli F, Zamagni A (2013) Life cycle sustainability assessment in the context of sustainability science progress (part 1). Int J Life Cycle Assess 18:1653–1672CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Schmidt I, Meurer M, Saling P, Kicherer A, Reuter W, Gensch CO (2004) Managing sustainability of products and processes with the socio-eco-efficiency analysis by BASF. Greener Manag Int 45:79–94Google Scholar
  36. SETAC (1993) A conceptual framework for lifecycle impact assessment. Proceedings of a workshop in Sandestin, Florida. Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, February 1–7, 1992, in Pensacola, FloridaGoogle Scholar
  37. Shapiro KG, White AL (1999) Life-cycle design practices at three multi-national companies. Paper presented at the 1999 International Symposium on Electronics and the Environment, Danvers, MA, United StatesGoogle Scholar
  38. Spillemaeckers S (2007) The Belgian social label: the first governmental social label based on social life cycle analysis. Paper presented at the CALCAS Workshop Governance and Life-Cycle Analysis. Opportunities for Going Beyond ISO-LCA, Brussels, BelgiumGoogle Scholar
  39. Szejnwald Brown H, de Jong M, Lessidrenska T (2007) The rise of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) as a case of institutional entrepreneurship. Working Paper No. 36 of the Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative, May 2007Google Scholar
  40. Technical University of Denmark (2010) Invitation to seminar: addressing the social dimension of product sustainability with life cycle assessment, May 31st 2010, 14.00–17.00 Meeting room 1, Building 101 A, DTUGoogle Scholar
  41. Timberlake L (2006) Catalyzing change: a short history of the WBCSD. WBCSD, GenevaGoogle Scholar
  42. Udo de Haes HA, Heijungs R, Suh S, Huppes G (2004) Three strategies to overcome the limitations of life-cycle assessment. J Ind Ecol 8:19–32CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Unknown (1996) Synthesis report: the social value of LCA. Int J Life Cycle Assess 1:65CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Wenzel H, Hauschild M, Alting L (1997) Environmental assessment of products. Vol. 1—methodology, tools and case studies in product development. Kluwer Academic Publishers, United KingdomGoogle Scholar
  45. White AL Time for Social Contract 2.0? Undated manuscriptGoogle Scholar
  46. White AL, Becker M, Savage DE (1993) Environmentally smart accounting: using total cost assessment to advance pollution prevention. Pollution Prevention Review, pp 247–259Google Scholar
  47. Wisnioski MH (2012) Engineers for change: competing visions of technology in 1960’s America. The MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar
  48. Wisnioski M (2009) How engineers contextualize themselves. In: Christensen SH, Delahouse B, Meganck M (eds) Engineering in context. Academica, Aarhus, pp. 403–416Google Scholar
  49. Zadek S (1997) Towards a Progressive Buddhist Economics. Accessed 15, February 2014
  50. 2.0 LCA Consultants undated What is (was) SPOLD. Accessed 20 February 2014

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Computer Science, Humanities and Science, Technology & Society Affiliated FacultyCalifornia Polytechnic State UniversitySan Luis ObispoUSA

Personalised recommendations