When referring to environmental impact of products and services we do not always cover their whole life cycle – which is undoubtedly highly relevant to their sustainability. The LCA concept is doing precisely that and therefore it is essential for a proper perspective at human activities being compatible with the requirements of sustainable business and way of life.

According to Kaitlin Tyler from Ansys, we can distinguish the following three sustainability capitals:

  • natural capital: clean air, productive land, fresh water, biodiversity, material and energy resources;
  • human and social capital: knowledge, education, culture, human health, skills, life, liberty and happiness;
  • manufacture capital: built environment, industrial capacity and financial health.

Needless to emphasize, in real life, they are all part of the picture, closely interconnected, and none of them should be neglected – if we want to have an authentic picture, and achieve optimal results: implying that nobody is affected negatively.

Unfortunately, as we are increasingly aware, sustainability is not fully respected, and therefore the basis for economic crises remains man-made, and all of the damage and suffering largely avoidable.

These days there is lots of attention to pollution and global warming – fortunately, the awareness that it is primarily man-made is becoming slowly recognised – but our leaders are still far from being resolved to start acting NOW! The excuse of not being informed is out, the issue is the lack of our politicians’ social responsibility as they do what the big business asks them to do – and that is a shame!

The recent Glasgow Summit has been a stark reminder of the state of affairs!

Finally, with very few exceptions, most societies around the globe experience excessive economic differentiation – in many cases nearing the explosive level, and history teaches us what follows: if not all-out revolution, that major violence with many victims and suffering – and finally bringing about necessary corrections!

Life Cycle Assessment or LCA (also known as life cycle analysis) is a methodology for assessing environmental impacts associated with all the stages of the life cycle of a commercial product, process, or service. For instance, in the case of a manufactured product, environmental impacts are assessed from raw material extraction and processing (cradle), through the product's manufacture, distribution and use, to the recycling or final disposal of the materials composing it (grave).

During an LCA we evaluate the potential environmental impacts throughout the entire life cycle of a product or service. This also includes the upstream (e.g., suppliers) and downstream (e.g., waste management) processes associated with the production. Life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) covers all relevant inputs from the environment (e.g.: ores and crude oil, water, land use), as well as emissions into air, water and soil (e.g.: carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides). The International Organization for Standardization provides guidelines and requirements for conducting a Life Cycle Assessment according to ISO 14040 and 14044.

The main phases of Life Cycle Assessment are:

  1. Goal & scope definition
    In this phase, you define the product or service that you wish to assess, you choose a functional basis for comparison and you define the required level. You then set a goal which determines the scope, including objective, application and audience. Lastly, you determine whether or not there has to be a critical review of that goal.

  2. Inventory analysis
    Here you perform a data compilation and an inventory analysis of extractions from and releases into the environment. The final inventory provides a list of all inputs and outputs associated with the life cycle of your product or service.

  3. Impact assessment
    In impact assessment, you classify resource use and emissions generated according to their potential impacts and quantify them for a limited number of impact categories, which you may then assess in terms of their relative importance for the goal of the LCA evaluation.

  4. Interpretation
    With the above information, you discuss the results in terms of contributions, relevance, robustness, data quality and limitations, and you systematically evaluate any opportunities for reducing the negative effects of the product(s) or service(s) on the environment while avoiding burden shifting between impact categories or life cycle phases. Avoiding burden shifting is a core strength of the LCA approach.

There are the following variants of LCA:

  • cradle-to-grave is the full Life Cycle Assessment from resource extraction ('cradle') to use phase and disposal phase ('grave');
  • cradle-to-gate is an assessment of a partial product life cycle from resource extraction (cradle) to the factory gate (i.e., before it is transported to the consumer);
  • cradle-to-cradle is a specific kind of cradle-to-grave assessment, where the end-of-life disposal step for the product is a recycling process. It is a method used to minimize the environmental impact of products by employing sustainable production, operation, and disposal practices, and aims to incorporate social responsibility into product development;
  • gate-to-gate is a partial LCA looking at only one value-added process through the entire production process;
  • well-to-wheel is the specific LCA used for transport fuels and vehicles. The analysis is often broken down into stages entitled "well-to-station", or "well-to-tank", and "station-to-wheel" or "tank-to-wheel", or "plug-to-wheel";
  • economic input-output LCA (EIOLCA) involves the use of aggregate sector-level data on how much environmental impact can be attributed to each sector of the economy and how much each sector purchases from other sectors;
  • while a conventional LCA uses many of the same approaches and strategies as an eco-LCA, the latter considers a much broader range of ecological impacts. It was designed to provide a guide to the wise management of human activities by understanding the direct and indirect impacts on ecological resources and surrounding ecosystems;
  • exergy of a system is the maximum useful work possible during a process that brings the system into equilibrium with a heat reservoir.

Economic life-cycle costing and environmental‒life-cycle assessments provide practicing engineers with tools to understand and incorporate these capitals into the design of a product’s life-cycle. None of the tools, however, assess human and social capital. By leaving them out of the design process, engineers can miss various human and social impacts caused by a product, including:

  • poor working conditions;
  • unfair manufacturing practices;
  • human rights violations.

As social is one of the three dimensions of sustainability, the social-LCA could be the key to designing and creating truly sustainable products, manufacturing and service providing processes.

S-LCA does not provide an answer to the question of whether a product should be produced or not – although information obtained from an S-LCA may offer “food for thought” and can be helpful for taking this decision.

The social impact assessment is made in a similar way as the environmental life cycle assessment. However, S-LCA can be used individually without combining it with LCA. Social life cycle assessment is a methodology mostly used to assess the potential social impacts of products along their life cycle from raw materials extraction to final products’ disposal. This methodology is similar to the environmental life cycle assessment methodology as both follow the ISO 14040 framework. Thus, S-LCA is comprised of four steps.

  • Goal and scope definition, where the main objectives of the study, the functional unit, and the boundary of the product system are defined. The functional unit is a representative element of the system being studied, and provides a point of reference to quantify the magnitude of the social impacts associated with the product/service considered.
  • Inventory analysis consists of the collection of data using different indicators through questionnaires, literature review, and/or databases. The Social Hotspots Database is a database developed specifically for the purposes of supporting S-LCA. This database has generic social data for 160 indicators at country and sector levels, based on statistics and information issued by governments and international organizations such as the World Health Organization.
  • Impact assessment, the social data gathered in the previous step is converted into potential social impacts (named “impact subcategories”). Most S-LCA studies accomplished this by comparing the social data with performance reference points.
  • Results Interpretation concerns analysis of the results obtained in the previous step, which includes identifying the most critical social impacts (impact subcategories) and in which country-specific sector this social issue is most likely to arise (social hotspot).

Social-LCA explores the behaviour of the companies making products/providing services. It also assesses the social/geopolitical norms of the nations in which the product is manufactured, used and disposed of. In comparison, environmental-LCA assesses the environmental impact of a product’s manufacture, use and disposal.

The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) modeled social-LCA methodologies after environmental-LCA. By utilizing these methodologies, alongside existing environmental-LCA tools, engineers can begin to fully address the sustainability of products and designs. For example, Ansys Granta is presenting a Social Audit Tool that uses social-LCA guidelines. The Social Audit Tool contains the following aspects:

  • assembles and scales social data between 1 (worst practice) to 100 (best practice);
  • sets hotspot thresholds;
  • assesses the well-being of one or more stakeholder groups to flag social hotspots.

In assessing sustainability on a life cycle basis, an integrated tool called life cycle sustainability assessment (LCSA) has been also introduced. The LCA tools (environmental, economic, and social) are integrated in LCSA in order to cover all three pillars of sustainability. From the first initiative of the German Oeko-Institut through product line analysis on to Kloepfer's formula in 2007, Finkbeiner et al. (2010) illustrated a strengthened LCSA as follows:


where: LCSA, life cycle sustainability assessment; LCA, life cycle assessment (environmental); LCC, life cycle costing (economic); SLCA, social life cycle assessment (social).

Until today, LCSA is an infant methodology, which is honed from time to time by sustainability scientists and researchers across the world to hurdle its computational issues and limitations (e.g.: data availability, consistency, synthesizability, and reliability). Individually, the components of LCSA have their respective computational issues to resolve, as the use of the life cycle tools continues to increase.

As we have presented, there is an abundance of methodologies to measure all aspects of product life cycle impact – including the social aspects. The barrier to understanding the logic of LCSA is – at least in 21st century – not cognitive, but a matter of social responsibility – that means political! No doubt, politicians could do much more to impose rules helping economic operators, as well as consumers, to decide to act responsibly. As experience shows, this creates ethical and socially responsible behavior on the parts of corporate decision-makers, business partners, consumers, as well as all other social groups – not excluding politicians. These are responsible to the electoral body and should act reasonably – and if not should be recalled or dismissed by the organised citizens.

However, why is this not happening? The answer is very simple because citizens and socially responsible interest groups and NGOs are not sufficiently alert and active!

(Article prepared by: prof. dr. Ajda Fošner and prof. dr. Boris Cizelj).

Sources used and further reading

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.
Ilgin, Mehmet Ali; Surendra M. Gupta (2010). "Environmentally Conscious Manufacturing and Product Recovery (ECMPRO): A Review of the State of the Art". Journal of Environmental Management, 91 (3): 563 591.
Matthews, H. Scott, Chris T. Hendrickson, and Deanna H. Matthews (2014). Life Cycle Assessment: Quantitative Approaches for Decisions That Matter, pp. 83–95.
K. Tyler, What is Social-Life-Cycle Assessment? 28 August 2019.
The Methodological Sheets for Sub-Categories in Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA).
Guidelines for Social LCA of Products: English.