Social Life-Cycle Assessment for Building Materials

Social Life-Cycle Assessment for Building Materials

Liz Kutschke (University of Minnesota, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 34
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-2426-8.ch008

Abstract

The goal of sustainable design and development is threefold, including economic, environmental, and social sustainability. While there are well-established methods for assessing the economic and environmental performance of products and buildings, the determination of social performance is less clear. This chapter explores the emerging field of social life cycle assessment (S-LCA), particularly as it relates to building materials and construction. This chapter includes 1) an introduction to and overview of S-LCA, summarized case studies of S-LCA; 2) a discussion of the relevance of S-LCA in sustainable design practice and education; 3) an examination of the role of environmental life cycle assessment (E-LCA) in building performance standards and certifications as a model for the incorporation of S-LCA; and 4) a reflection on areas for future research, including the addition of social science theory and practice for methodology, criteria, and metric development.
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Introduction

In the pursuit of sustainable development, project teams are required to manage sustainable materials, buildings, and systems – it is true that one cannot manage what one does not measure, and one cannot improve what one does not manage. While it is impossible to measure all impacts (e.g., economic, environmental, or social), data and analysis of building materials allow for meaningful comparison between alternatives based on specific criteria. Environmental and financial impacts are fairly well understood for material production, use, and disposal; building design, use, and demolition; and other human development activities. The third component of sustainability, social sustainability, is less well understood, measured, and managed. The emerging field of social life cycle assessment (S-LCA) has begun to fill this gap. SLCA is a social impact (both real and potential impact) assessment method that ‘…aims to assess the social and socio-economic aspects of products and their positive and negative impacts along their product life cycle.” (Petti, 2018)

This chapter will include: 1) an introduction to and overview of S-LCA, summarized case studies of S-LCA; 2) a discussion of the relevance of S-LCA in sustainable design practice and education; 3) an examination of the role of environmental life cycle assessment (E-LCA) in building performance standards and certifications as a model for the incorporation of S-LCA; and 4) a reflection on areas for future research, including the addition of social science theory and practice for methodology, criteria, and metric development.

Guidelines for social life cycle assessment of products is the formative document of this growing field that was developed by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) and Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) Life Cycle Initiative in 2009 (Benoit and Mazijn, 2009). This document provides a framework for conducting S-LCA, including guidance on setting the goal and scope, conducting inventory, and identifying and interpreting indicators. The framework is a starting point for developing databases and software to make S-LCA a widely and easily accessible tool for decision-makers across industries. S-LCA is based on the established practice of E-LCA, which has been standardized, broadly acknowledged, and accepted by sustainability researchers and practitioners. S-LCA, on the other hand, is evolving quickly and is thus methodologically inconsistent.

Differences Between E-LCA and S-LCA

Environmental and social life cycle assessments have several characteristics in common – both are based on an ISO framework that includes goal and scope definition, life cycle inventory analysis, life cycle impact assessment, and interpretation. Both types of analysis require huge amounts of data, work in iterative processes, are strengthened by peer reviews, and when completed can be useful tools in decision-making. There are also some key differences between an E-LCA and an S-LCA. The most obvious difference is the topic of study – E-LCA focuses only on environmental impacts and therefore primarily on the physical qualities of the product, its production, and its disposal. On the other hand, S-LCA focuses on the organization-related aspects of the product chain – the actions of the humans producing and managing the product. By focusing only on E-LCA and life-cycle costing, the social component of sustainability is overlooked and unmeasured, and inherently undervalued in decision-making.

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