Analysis of the main elements affecting social LCA applications: challenges for the automotive sector

Abstract

Purpose

Social life cycle assessment (S-LCA) applications have been growing during the last years. Most of the scientific articles published so far have addressed the applicability of S-LCA, focusing on selecting suitable indicators, and only recently, the developments in the area of impact pathway are increasing. However, a critical analysis of how to set an S-LCA study, in particular the goal and scope and inventory phase, is missing. This article critically analyses the most important elements affecting the goal and scope and inventory phase of S-LCA, with a focus on the automotive sector, with the ultimate goal of developing a structured approach to guide practitioners in the critical application of S-LCA.

Methods

The literature review covers 67 publications from 2006 to 2015, including all the case studies published so far, to the best knowledge of the authors, in several sectors and the automotive one. The reviewed works have been structured along the key elements affecting the goal and scope and inventory phases of the S-LCA.

Results and discussion

The methodological and practical issues affecting S-LCA have been organized into a conceptual map, in which all the elements are sequentially placed. This sequence is an orderly procedure consisting of several nodes representing crucial points where a decision needs to be taken or a further reflection is necessary. The case studies of the automotive sector and the corporate-related documents have been used also for the discussion of the conceptual map nodes to identify which aspects are already covered by the literature and which ones need further research.

Conclusions

Facing the inventory phase of S-LCA needs also to set specific elements of the goal and scope phase which are fundamental for approaching coherently the product system at hand and for supporting the selection of stakeholders, indicators, and data. Moreover, in order to foster S-LCA applications and make it a robust decision-support tool, the authors suggest to re-define its framework and approach according to the organizational perspective, as laid down in the recent Organisation Environmental Footprint and Organizational LCA. This implies that social aspects will be evaluated both in relation to the organization behavior and to the basket of products, thus reconciling the need to keep together the conduct-of-a-company perspective, typical of social evaluations, and the product-oriented approach, inherent to the life cycle and in particular to the functional unit concept.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Tier 1 suppliers are those who supply materials or components directly to the company.

  2. 2.

    The methodology proposed within the Roundtable for Product Social Metrics initiative tries to indirectly tackle social impacts of the existence of the product on stakeholder groups throughout its life cycle by including social topics and performance indicators that reflect positive and negative impacts of the product. The procedure to allocate the general organizational performance to the product level is clearly described in the handbook.

  3. 3.

    Material aspects are those that reflect the organization’s significant economic, environmental, and social impacts or that substantively influence the assessments and decisions of stakeholders (Global Reporting Initiative 2015).

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Zanchi, L., Delogu, M., Zamagni, A. et al. Analysis of the main elements affecting social LCA applications: challenges for the automotive sector. Int J Life Cycle Assess 23, 519–535 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-016-1176-8

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Keywords

  • Automotive sector
  • Case studies
  • Conceptual map
  • Organizational LCA
  • Product LCA
  • Social LCA