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Sustainable Consumption Institute

Broadening life cycle assessment by integrating engineering and social science approaches

The main aim of this proposal is to explore how engineering and social science approaches can be brought together in the field of sustainable production and consumption.

Specifically, the focus will be on the development of new methodologies and approaches for broadening life cycle assessment (LCA), one of the main tools used for environmental sustainability assessments. The development will focus on the following two interlinked areas: 

  1. measuring the circularity of products and materials within a circular economy (CE); and
  2. evaluating social life cycle sustainability of products and human activities. 

i) Environmental LCA is an established tool but it is not well suited for measuring the circularity of products or materials as it focuses on resource depletion and environmental impacts. With discussions on CE gaining momentum internationally, this is an opportunity to provide leadership in the development of appropriate measures of circularity. These should go beyond the usual mechanistic measuring of the amounts of materials used but also aim to understand long-term social implications. The measures should also reflect the role of both producers and consumers in increasing the circularity to help with the implementation of a CE. 

ii) The above also links well with the second area related to evaluating social life cycle sustainability of products and human activities (of which circularity is one aspect). Social LCA is used for these purposes but the methodology is inadequate due to many reasons, including the vast array of indicators used. A further issue is that they were not developed by social scientists and lack the necessary social-science underpinning. Therefore, the aim of this part of the research would be to consider, in collaboration with social scientists, an alternative approach to measuring social sustainability through appropriate framing of the problem and understanding the roles of different stakeholders within the production and consumption chains. This would be a first attempt internationally to develop such an approach.  

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