Social life cycle assessment (S-LCA): a method to meet new expectations for documenting and improving the social performance of products or organisations

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a good tool for evaluating the environmental impacts of products, but the method does not incorporate social impacts. Therefore, the social LCA method (S-LCA) has been developed.

Similar to what environmental LCA does for environmental impacts, social LCA considers social impacts for all affected parties in a value chain. The purpose of S-LCA is to show both the positive and negative social impacts throughout the whole value chain. This is a topic of increasing interest in all industrial sectors, and we expect the perceived usefulness of the approach will further increase as the upcoming European Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and Directive on Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence (CSDD) are launched. Already today, the EU taxonomy for sustainable finance requires disclosure of certain societal impacts through the concept of ‘Minimal Safeguards’.

Social LCA is a more recent methodology than LCA. It is also most discussed, but at the same time it is an emerging tool for measuring the social impact of product. The idea of integrated social and socio-economic criteria in LCA was born from the SETAC conference in 1999 (UNEP/SETAC 2009), where social welfare was recommended as a social impact category in environmental LCA studies. The result of the discussions was that S-LCA was developed as a separate assessment approach, which could be integrated with environmental LCA and the economic LCA approach Life Cycle Costing, into Life Cycle Sustainable Assessments (LCSA).

In 2009, UNEP/SETAC published guidelines for social life cycle assessment of products, where Social LCA was defined as

a social impact (and potential impact) assessment technique that aims to assess the social and socio-economic aspects of products and their potential positive and negative impacts along their life cycle encompassing extraction and processing of raw materials; manufacturing; distribution; use; re-use; maintenance; recycling; and final disposal”.

According to UNEP/SETAC 2009, the aim of the S-LCA is “to promote improvement of social conditions and of the overall socio-economic performance of a product throughout its life cycle for all of its stakeholders”. Later, the method has been expanded to hold for also organisations and industrial sectors overall, which is reflected in the 2020 UNEP update of the guidelines.S-LCA is used both as a communication tool and for decision support, for companies, NGOs and public authorities.

Since 2009 an increasing number of scientific articles have been published using the S-LCA approach and method. There are still many foundational issues discussed and much methodological development ongoing, as witnessed at The 8th International Conference on S-LCA in Aachen September 2022, where NORSUS contributed to the programme. There is rapid development in both harmonised practice and database resources.

S-LCA has similarities and differences with environmental LCA. In S-LCA, e.g. the geographical dimension is very important, because social issues are different from country to country (e.g. working conditions, the right to join unions, etc.). The time frame is another key element, because social impacts change over time (level of poverty, health status, etc.).

Databases for social sustainability are crucial in most S-LCA project and the currently most important are PSILCA and Social Hotspot Database . These databases help us identify so-called «hot spots», which are phases or areas in the value chain with the highest consequences for social sustainability.

At NORSUS we have used S-LCA in several projects, such as RoButcher, Exilva, Meat 2.0, Future Pack, iNOBox and Redesign QR.

Further information about the status on S-LCA can be found here:

Tokede, O., Traverso, M. Implementing the guidelines for social life cycle assessment: past, present, and future. Int J Life Cycle Assess 25, 1910–1929 (2020).

Arcese, G., Lucchetti, M.C., Massa, I. and Valente, C. State of the art in S-LCA: integrating literature review and automatic text analysis. Int J Life Cycle Assess 23, 394–405 (2018).

Sala S, Vasta A, Mancini L, Dewulf J, Rosenbaum E. Social Life Cycle Assessment: State of the art and challenges for supporting product policies. EUR 27624. Luxembourg (Luxembourg): Publications Office of the European Union; 2015. JRC99101

Interested in S-LCA? Contact Clara Valente at NORSUS.