Social Life Cycle Assessment: what is it all about?
The textile, clothing, leather and footwear industry is characterised by complex global supply chains. These characteristics, typical of the fashion industry's supply chain, expose companies and brands to significant social issues that can emerge along the entire supply chain.
There are, in fact, many critical social issues in the sector:
- Wages below subsistence level: in Bangladesh, the legal minimum wage of 1,500 taka is only ⅙ compared to the 7,710-10,200 needed for a decent existence
- Gender issues: 76% of female workers in Bangladesh report being victims of physical and verbal violence by supervisors
- Forced labour and child labour: about 2 million Uyghur Muslims are forced into forced labour in re-education camps in Xinjiang, according to a BBC report in March 2021
For these reasons, it is increasingly important for companies in the textile and fashion industry to monitor the critical social issues that often occur along the supply chain.
In this respect, the Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA) is a method that can be used to assess the social and sociological aspects of products, their actual and potential positive and negative impacts along the entire life cycle.
The Guidelines for Social Life cycle Assessment of Products: what are the steps in an S-LCA?
The UNEP Guidelines, known as the Guidelines for Social Life cycle Assessment of Products, provide the key elements to be considered when assessing the social aspects of products by considering their entire life cycle, i.e. extraction and processing of raw materials, production, distribution, use, reuse, maintenance, recycling and final disposal.
According to these guidelines, Social and Socioeconomic Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA) can be applied either independently or in combination with a traditional Life Cycle Assessment study, which exclusively assesses the environmental impacts of a product, process or service.
The S-LCA methodology considers all those social and socio-economic aspects that can directly affect stakeholders in a positive or negative way during the life cycle of a product. However, it does not aim or claim to provide information on whether a product should be manufactured or not, but offers food for thought for possible decisions of this kind.
The steps to conduct an S-LCA are as follows:
- Definition of the objective and scope: At this stage, it is essential to list the rationale behind the study, the object of the evaluation, the recipients of the final information and whether the results will be made public. Furthermore, it is important to define the breadth and depth of the study, i.e. the system boundaries, as well as the quality of the data (site-specific or generic), the categories and sub-categories of stakeholders to be involved, the types of impact to be considered and the functional unit.
- Inventory analysis: in this second phase, data are collected, validated and correlated against the functional unit of reference. In this phase, a general assessment is also made of the system hotspots, i.e. the social problems in the area (country, region) from which the greatest contribution to the product life cycle originates
- Life Cycle Impact Assessment: unlike the LCA methodology, in the case of an S-LCA study there are 2 different approaches to choose from: Reference Scale Approach (Assessment of the product system in terms of social performance or social risk) and Impact Pathway Approach (Assessment of the consequences arising from the product system, with a focus on potential social impacts). Having said this, the third step is generally characterised by 3 sub-steps:
- Selezione delle categorie di impatto, dei metodi e dei modelli di caratterizzazione: nella prima sottofase si identificano le categorie di stakeholder (ad esempio lavoratori, comunità locale, ecc) a cui sono correlate le categorie di impatto, ossia i temi sociali di più ampio spettro (ad esempio i diritti umani) e le relative sottocategorie di impatto (es. Pari opportunità).
- Collegamento dei dati dell'inventario a specifiche sottocategorie e categorie di impatto (classificazione): nella fase di classificazione, i risultati dell'Inventario vengono assegnati a una specifica Categoria di Stakeholder e/o Categoria di Impatto
- Determinazione e/o calcolo dei risultati degli indicatori delle sottocategorie (caratterizzazione): nella fase di caratterizzazione, utilizzando fattori di conversione, i diversi valori dell'inventario vengono convertiti in valori comuni, permettendo di quantificare gli impatti sociali.
- Interpretation of results: this is the final stage of an S-LCA, in which all previous stages are reviewed. Once the iterative process of the study is completed, the results of the S-LCIA phase are reviewed and discussed in depth. This discussion forms the basis for drawing conclusions, making recommendations and taking decisions in line with the objective and scope of the study. This is a fundamental phase of an S-LCA study, as it influences the ability to understand the final results and the possibilities for improvement on the part of the direct addressees and other stakeholders involved in the study.
Principles for communicating social impacts
According to the Guidelines for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products and Organisations, a statement by an organisation regarding social impacts must be:
- Reliable: accurate, scientifically sound and consistent, and based on proven data and assumptions. Obtaining third-party verification is not a mandatory requirement, but is considered the most reliable option
- Relevant: as it captures the main hotspots of the studied system, i.e. the main social impacts found during the analysis
- Clear: explicit and easy to understand
- Transparent: not misleading and characterised by transparency on the methodology adopted, the origin of the data used, the stakeholders involved, etc.
- Accessible: as it must be easily accessible to those who need to consult it.
Benefits and limitations of the S-LCA methodology
The S-LCA provides information on social and socio-economic aspects to support decision making, in order to improve the social performance of an organization and, consequently, the well-being of stakeholders.
Moreover, S-LCA differs from other calculation methodologies in that it allows a more complete assessment of the social and socio-economic impacts of a product, since its entire life cycle is considered. This provides a more complete and in-depth view of the social implications associated with the production, use and disposal of a product.
S-LCA methodology can identify critical points along the supply chain in terms of social impacts. This makes it possible to focus improvement efforts in areas where the impacts are most significant and to address social problems in a targeted manner. The evaluation of the results of a Social Life Cycle Assessment study can be used as a basis for dialogue and interaction with stakeholders, promoting greater transparency and a better understanding of social concerns.
Despite these positive aspects, the lack of adequate software can significantly limit the use of S-LCA, since it would require a large amount of resources to conduct a comprehensive study.
Moreover, since this is a relatively new methodology, there are few databases available. This means that the collection of all relevant data takes time and is therefore a costly stage in the conduct of the study.
In addition to these limitations, the methodology of the Social Life Cycle Assessment requires strong skills in the field of Life Cycle Analysis and in the assessment of social impacts by the professionals involved, as well as the need to include stakeholders in the different stages of the analysis, make the S-LCA methodology even more complex and costly.
The textile and fashion sector presents various social problems that occur along the supply chain. This underlines the need to monitor social issues that typically occur in the supply chain of the fashion industry.
For this purpose, the Social Life Cycle Assessment is a valuable tool to assess the social impacts associated with products throughout the life cycle, providing essential information to take any improvement actions.
However, since the S-LCA methodology has been introduced recently, there are several limitations that may hinder the implementation of Social Life Cycle Assessment studies by companies, although it is essential to monitor social issues in order to make a genuine transition to sustainable development.
To respond to this type of problem, Cikis Studio has developed the ESG Audit tool, a customized software for fashion companies that simplifies the management of the supply chain and assesses the sustainability of suppliers, reducing the time, costs and errors associated with such activities, in order to allow companies to respond adequately to the increasing regulatory pressure of due diligence on the supply chain.
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