Life-Cycle Based Sustainability Assessment of Products
Sustainability was adopted by United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in Rio de Janiero 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 be improved.
Depending on the systems to be improved, in the sense of better sustainability, and to the audience(s), i.e. actors or stakeholders, different scientific and practical approaches are being developed. There are notably two directions which can be distinguished: one based on accounting (Environmental Accounting and Environmental Management Accounting—EMA) and another one based on the Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) of products. In this article, the latter approach is described in the hope of improving the mutual understanding of the two communities and their assessment/accounting tools. The responsibility of the researchers involved in the assessment of sustainability is to provide appropriate, reliable, and up-to-date instruments. For the environmental part, there is already an internationally standardised tool: Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA). Life-Cycle Costing (LCC) is the logical counterpart of LCA for the economic assessment. LCC surpasses the purely economic accounting and 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 The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC). It is a very important point that different life-cycle based methods (including Social Life-Cycle Assessment ‘SLCA’) for sustainability assessment use consistent system boundaries.
SLCA has been neglected in the past, mainly due to great methodological difficulties, but is now beginning to be developed. The central problems seem to be how to relate the social indicators (social impact assessment) quantitatively to the functional unit of the product-system, and how to restrict to a manageable number the many social indicators proposed. Furthermore, a better regional resolution of the Life-Cycle Inventory, compared to conventional LCA, has to be achieved since the social conditions vary geographically much more than, the core element of LCA industrial production.
KeywordsLife Cycle Assessment Functional Unit Social Indicator United Nations Environment Programme Sustainability Assessment
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