The social cost to the environment

If one thing positive has come out of these turbulent times caused by the global pandemic, it is the humanity and the kindness shown towards others, both friends and strangers alike. I hope that, when this is all over, we can carry this empathy towards others forward. Empathy for people, and society at large is one of the three pillars of sustainability, along with the environment and economic sustainability. Only a society that is economically, socially and environmentally sustainable will thrive in the long term.

When we think about the production of things, economic sustainability can be simply thought of as profit and loss accounting - i.e. can we sell a product for more than it costs to manufacture? Of course, there are complexities when you scale up to business scale and beyond but essentially if a breakeven point or better can be reached then the production of a product is economically sustainable. Similarly, environmental sustainability of production can be quantified and compared between products or production methods. Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) formalises this process and standards are available to ensure that LCAs are comparable.

But what about the third pillar of sustainability, the social aspects? What influence does the production of an item, or the provision of a service, have on people’s lives, communities and countries?

Around 2004, interest grew in the idea of developing a tool (similar to LCA) that could quantify the social implications of products and processes. The initial idea behind the development of the tool was to deliver decision-making support that pushes the decision towards the most socially acceptable scenario. This of course is not a new idea, consumers have had tools to make that decision for a long time, Fairtrade labelling being one of the most famous. Indeed, the same can be said for some business-led labels as well, for instance the Forest Stewardship Councils Chain of Custody Certificate provides credible assurance for products with environmentally and socially responsible sources to access the market. However, SLCA provides a unique functionality by enabling a holistic assessment of a product’s social impacts, including all stages of the life cycle.

The driving force behind any life cycle assessment is data, and the better the data the better the LCA. This is just as true for social LCA as it is for environmental LCA. And as with environmental LCA, the modelling in SLCA begins by building a balanced mass and energy flow, accounting for all inputs and outputs associated with the lifecycle at hand. Subsequently, a lifecycle inventory database (such as Ecoinvent, in the case of environmental LCA) is needed to link each input with the environmental impact data associated with that input’s use.

To this end, the Social Hotspots Database provides the ability to 1. the model the product systems and 2. the initial assessment of potential social impacts (social hotspot or scoping assessment). It thus provides a background net that captures and represents the full supply chain and its potential impacts. Whilst primary data capture is still the gold standard for SLCA, the Social Hotspots Database provides very comprehensive top-down results, at of the cost of reduced granularity relative to process-level data.

Social LCA is still developing as a decision-making tool but careful application to products and processes will aid in more socially responsible production and processes. As with all LCA the greatest care has to be taken when defining the goal and scope of the social LCA, but with carful application SLCA can be as large an influencer on the way products are made as environmental LCA.

Dr Graham Ormondroyd PhD FIMMM, Chair of Wood Technology Society and IOM3 Strategic Advisor