Guidance on determining, implementing and interpreting reference values in social impact assessment

Main Presenter:    Mélanie Douziech 

Co-Authors:   Andreas Roesch     Melf Hinrich-Ehlers                                          

Social impact assessment requires the explicit definition of reference values (RVs) for consistent interpretation of social indicators. Identifying and using appropriate reference values is a difficult task considering the different types of RVs, possibilities to base RVs on negotiated norms or scientific evidence and the context-dependency of fitting values. There is no clear guidance on how to use RVs appropriately, despite some documentation such as the methodological sheets for Social Life Cycle Assessment (S-LCA) for indicator definition and selection or the scientific paper of Ramirez and colleagues (2014). Our work extends the early work by identifying key challenges of determining, implementing and interpreting RVs in social sustainability assessment and developing guidance to navigate the challenges in all these steps of using RVs. Cases of using RVs of income, workload, child labour and subjective wellbeing indicators in the agri-food sector provide illustration. Our analysis
draws on a review of 38 literature items on RVs of human well-being indicators, complemented with further literature. The analysis identifies challenges and derives guidance when using RVs. While some definitions of RVs refer to desirable states, we recommend to define RVs neutrally, as possible values or points against which an actual value of an indicator or an assessment variable is compared. The definition based on desirable states is namely too variable since it is largely influenced by perceptions and interests as well as the social context, which varies across regions, stakeholders, or over time. It is important to acknowledge the different types of RVs, which are absolute, relative, or preference-based RVs and to identify which one corresponds best to the given goal and scope of an assessment project. Determining an RV further includes the choice of the approach to determine this value. We identified two dimensions in determining RVs: one dimension capturing whether the RV is
determined solely in scientific communities or solely in public and the other describing whether RVs are determined within or outside the assessment project. Depending on the specific context, possible controversy, resources availability and relevance of the assessment in a broader context, different approaches appear appropriate. Implementing RVs, meaning obtaining the actual value, raises challenges mainly related to data acquisition and management. Prioritising RV options according to data availability can help preventing challenges in implementing them. Transparent documentation of the procedures necessary to derive RVs and sensitivity analysis of RVs facilitates their interpretation.

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