Since the publication of the Social Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) Guidelines in 2009, the methodology has been steadily improved and refined. With a new update of the Guidelines around the corner (publication expected 2021), NEMO thought the time ripe to discuss current practices and challenges in social LCA. More than 30 participants from academia, research, business and government participated in the webinar.
Andrea di Maria (KU Leuven) and Alberto Vázquez Ruiz (CATAPA) started the workshop with a short introduction on the sustainability assessment approach in NEMO. They highlighted some challenges of Social LCA, such as limited access to company data compared to environmental LCA, quantification of social aspects and a proper visualization of the results.
Claudia di Noi (Greendelta) presented the Neves Corvo case in Portugal, which was studied in the ITERAMS project. After a social hotspot screening revealed that the perception of social issues might be as important as the identified social impacts themselves, a new methodology was developed to compare the identified with the perceived social impact. Technical impacts, whether positive or negative, are not always perceived, which shows the importance of a good communication policy. At the end of her talk, Claudia challenged the audience by asking “does a quantitative approach make sense for social aspects?” and stating that while S-LCA may give an important contribution, it should be complemented by other social assessment approaches.
In the IMPACT project, S-LCA was applied to small-scale mining in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Stéphanie Muller (BRGM) explained how the type I S-LCA hot spot analysis identified the most vulnerable spots for SOSO (Switch-on Switch-off) mining in Europe, and led to some recommendations for mitigation measures to be included in a future business plan. Stéphanie also invited the participants to reflect on open issues such as the impact of scale (is there an upscaling effect?), data representativeness and how to combine different kinds of social assessments. From the audience, Olga Sidorenko reflected that SLO studies have demonstrated the importance of scale, because this is directly linked to the potential impact.
In the third and last case study, Lucia Mancini (JRC) showed how S-LCA was used to assess the social impact of Responsible Sourcing initiatives in cobalt artisanal mining in the DRC. The assessment detected that price and fairness are important aspects for local stakeholders, and measuring such positive impacts is crucial. The study also noted distinct gaps in the S-LCA databases (e.g. on land competition and demography) which should be solved.
While the case studies highlighted that there are still a lot of questions to solve within the S-LCA methodology itself, Andrea di Maria (KU Leuven) added another level of complexity by asking “how do we integrate the S-LCA with other assessments such as E-LCA (environmental) and LCC (economic)”? One of the key questions is “to aggregate or not to aggregate” the results – while aggregation can be useful to simplify and draw conclusions, it inevitably entails a loss of information and detail.
In the ensuing debate, Lucia Mancini argued to treat social aspects differently than other assessments, because aggregation is very difficult to achieve in practice, and can only be done for certain aspects. Claudia di Noi remarked that results can be grouped in topics instead of impact categories, to combine different dimensions. Alberto Vázquez Ruiz (CATAPA) added that comparison can only be considered when the research question is the same for all assessments, which is rarely the case, the intentions of the researchers should be clearly stated, and the chosen indicators justified.
Bernard Mazijn (researcher and policy advisor) remarked that while policy has a preference for aggregation and easy visual information (e.g. colour coded dashboard), a researcher prefers to keep the highest possible level of information. Interdisciplinary collaboration, e.g. with mathematicians in PCA analysis, could contribute to solve the problem.
Alberto Vázquez Ruiz stressed that Social LCA – a scientific tool to measure impacts – differs from Social License to Operate (SLO) – an ongoing process in which a company works to ensure the social acceptance of its operations locally. Therefore, performing a S-LCA shouldn’t be used as a means to imply that the company has obtained the SLO.
Other questions focused on the S-LCA methodology itself. Data reliability remains an issue, although the guidelines give some support with quite rigorous standards. In addition, quantification is a major concern in different ways: which indicators to use, and how to ensure that the information available in qualitative information is not lost (e.g. not only the number of jobs counts, but also the quality of them).
S-LCA was developed by people with a strong background in E-LCA, who are mostly researchers and engineers but not social scientists. As such, they are often not trained in interviewing, and neglect the influence a researcher can have on the object of their study. The debate ended with a clear request to include more social scientists in the S-LCA, as they can give valuable insight into these matters.
In his concluding speech, Bernard Mazijn (Head of the Cabinet Ministry of Climate, Environment, Sustainable Development and Green Deal) drew attention to the fact that social aspects go further than the European Union. Mining for virgin materials is downsized in Europe because it is much cheaper to obtain these materials from countries with less stringent (environmental and human rights) legislation. If we want a truly sustainable regional development, we need to go beyond the European to the global level in order to find a way to protect the rights of the workers and their communities abroad who may be suffering from our economic activities. Bernard also emphasized the strong political engagement and activism of early S-LCA researchers, and the support that policy can give to help them deliver results. He invited the audience to gather support among local ministers and MPs to strengthen the need for S-LCA.
In conclusion, the SLCA workshop raised a number of questions for further debate. As a first step, NEMO invited participants to contribute to a joint paper on multicriteria assessment. Interested parties are requested to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Full programme with links to the presentations:
10.00 – 10.15: Welcome and introduction to topic by NEMO project
10.15 – 11.00: Case studies
- Assessing social impacts of novel technologies and their influence on local communities’ perception about mining. The Neves Corvo case in Portugal (ITERAMS) (Claudia Di Noi, Greendelta)
- Applying social Life cycle assessment to the mining sector: a case study exploring the hotspots of small-scale mining in Bosnia and Herzegovina (IMPaCT). (Stéphanie Muller, BRGM)
- Assessing social impacts of cobalt artisanal mining: the role of S-LCA (Lucia Mancini, JRC)
11.00 – 11.15: How to integrate results of S-LCA in a multicriteria sustainability assessment? (Andrea di Maria, KU Leuven)
11.15 – 11.45: Debate
11.45-11.55: Closing statement by Bernard Mazijn (UGent, Institute for Sustainable Development, Head of Cabinet Climate, Environment, Sustainable Development, Green Deal)
11.55: Wrap-up and end of the event
Andrea di Maria (KU Leuven)
Andrea Di Maria is a post-doctoral researcher at the department of materials engineering, at KU Leuven. He obtained a PhD in 2018 at KU Leuven, with a thesis focusing on the future challenges to combine circular economy and life cycle thinking approached in the construction sector. Since September 2018, Andrea works as a post-doctoral researcher at KU Leuven on various EU-H2020 and EIT-raw materials projects, on near-zero-waste strategies for the mining and metals sectors. Andrea’s current research interests focus on the environmental evaluation of new materials from residues, and on the integration of environmental, economic and social analysis to promote circular economy.
Alberto Vázquez Ruiz (CATAPA)
Alberto Vázquez Ruiz is MSc. in Conflict and Development (UGent, Belgium) specialized in topics related to mining and electronics – working at CATAPA (NGO focusing on the social impacts of mining). Since May 2018 he has been the Project Coordinator for CATAPA’s tasks in the ‘Horizon 2020’ project NEMO assessing the social impacts of the implementation of technologies aiming to revalorize mining tailings.
Claudia di Noi (Greendelta)
Claudia di Noi has been working as a sustainability consultant at GreenDelta since 2017. She is responsible for sustainability assessment of EU-funded research projects (topics: raw materials, chemicals, buildings). Claudia is a member of the working group for the revision of the S-LCA Guidelines https://www.social-lca.org/the-revision-of-the-slca-guidelines/ , and co-author of the S-LCA PSILCA database v.3.
Stéphanie Muller (BRGM)
Stéphanie Muller is Engineer of Mines of Ales (France) and Ph.D in chemical engineering from CIRAIG – Polytechnique Montréal (Canada). At BRGM, the French geological survey, since 2016, her work focuses on life cycle assessment (environmental and social) specific to the processing of the raw and secondary materials, the development of environmental indicators related to the use of resources and multi regional input output methods for the monitoring of the environmental impacts of consumption and production. She coordinates the ERA-MIN 2 project PROPER that looks at new sustainability metrics to improve recycling process performances regarding resource use, environmental impacts and economic benefits.
Lucia Mancini (JRC)
Lucia Mancini has an academic background in agricultural economics and ecological economics. Lucia Mancini is a scientific officer at the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC). Within the Raw Materials team, she works to support the EU raw materials policy, for what concern social sustainability and responsible sourcing. She contributed to the revision of the methodology for the identification of the critical raw materials for the EU, and to the development of the Raw Materials Scoreboard and the EC Raw Materials Information System. She is part of the Advisory Committee of the UN Life Cycle Initiative project on Social Life Cycle Assessment and contributor of the upcoming revision of Social LCA Guidelines.
With a background in agricultural and environmental engineering, complemented with studies on collaboration with developing countries, Bernard Mazijn has focused his work on sustainable development, sometimes also with an eye on the environment. Over the last 25 years, Bernard has developed his career along two lines, on the one hand in the academic world, both research and education as guest professor at the University of Ghent) and on the other hand in supporting and evaluating policy from local to international level. He was one of the authors and chairs of the Guidelines for Social Life cycle assessment of products published in 2009, and has taken part in numerous projects related to sustainable development. Since October 2020, Bernard is head of the Belgian (federal) cabinet under Minister Zakia Khattabi, responsible for Climate, Environment, Sustainable Development and Green Deal.