Navigating Social LCA Uncertainties in early assessment of innovative applications

Main Presenter:    Julieta Díez-Hernández 

Co-Authors:   Mario Santiago-Herrera     Jesús Ibáñez      Sonia Martel-Martín                                    

ILast year the European Commission launched its Safe and Sustainable by Design framework for chemicals and materials, with the ambition of integrating safety and sustainability in the development of new materials for transitioning towards a more holistically resilient future. Currently, the framework quest is to operationalise this integration by establishing methods, models, indicators and tools for getting results that are useful for decision-making. Delving into the socio-ethical account of the framework, this pillar, while open to different methodological choices, focuses on the use of S-LCA to this end. However, when actually conducting a S-LCA for an innovative material or product which has still to reach its market commercialisation phase, uncertainties arise when applying this methodology, spanning from issues related with the, still to be defined, functionality of the product and the identification of stakeholders, to changes in the supply of inputs once the product is
optimised and upscaled. All these uncertainties, although inherent to the assessment and the poor data availability, hinder the applicability of the assessments’ results for decision-making. The trade-off between the framework’s proposed methodology and the production of practical results that could positively influence design decisions build up the research question behind this communication: How to operationalise the production of functional social assessment for products in low Technology Readiness Levels.
A type-I assessment of the social impacts of a novel material is conducted, mapping all the uncertainties arising throughout the process. These uncertainties are then classified and analysed from the scope of other social assessment methodologies in order to provide a roadmap to tailor the assessment to the case of materials and intermediate products, prior to their market uptake.
Results show that S-LCA can be useful for defining the current state of the product, and its supply chain’s social sphere, as well as for identifying potential hotspots. However, for low TRL products and materials in which the next life cycle phases are still unknown, this assessment falls short to provide information that enriches decision-making, and requires to be more open-ended or complemented with data provided through other techniques.
By identifying its limitations and complementing a S-LCA with holistic and multidisciplinary socio-ethical assessment frameworks, the uncertainties related to innovative applications can be made visible and addressed, contributing to more informed decision-making.

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