Life cycle sustainability assessment of products
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Background Aims and Scope
Sustainability was adopted by UNEP in Rio de Janeiro (1992) as the main political goal for the future development of humankind. It should also be the ultimate aim of product development. According to the well known interpretation of the original definition given in the Brundtland report, sustainability comprises three components: environment, economy and social aspects. These components or “pillars” of sustainability have to be properly assessed and balanced if a new product is to be designed or an existing one is to be improved.
The responsibility of the researchers involved in the assessment is to provide appropriate and reliable instruments. For the environmental part there is already an internationally standardized tool: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). Life Cycle Costing (LCC) is the logical counterpart of LCA for the economic assessment. LCC surpasses the purely economic cost calculation by taking into account the use-and end-of-life phases and hidden costs. For this component, a guideline is being developed by SETAC as a basis for future standardization. It is a very important point that different life-cycle based methods (including Social Life Cycle Assessment ‘SLCA’) for sustainability assessment use consistent — ideally identical — system boundaries. This requirement includes that in LCC the physical life cycle (‘from cradle-to-grave’) is used instead of the frequently used marketing life cycle (‘from product development-to-end of market life’).
SLCA has been neglected in the past, but is now beginning to be developed. The central problems seem to be how to relate the social indicators (social impact assessment) to the functional unit of the product-system and how to restrict the many social indicators proposed to a manageable number. Meanwhile, qualitative and semi-quantitative approaches are used as substitutes for a full, quantitative SLCA. It is hoped that new methods will be developed and finally standardized by ISO. The combination of LCA, LCC and SLCA will provide the much needed tool for sustainability assessment of products.