This article explores ways how to systematically address positive impacts in the Handbook for Product Social Impact Assessments (PSIA). The literature concerning positive impacts in SLCA have been reviewed to better define positive impacts in PSIA and create a clearer understanding of aspects that should be assessed at the upper levels of reference scales. Theory of Change (ToC) has been adopted to develop guiding principles for establishing consistent reference scales for each of the social topics presented in PSIA.
Scrutiny of literature sources revealed that the concept of positive impacts is not clearly defined within SLCA methodology and no shared definition can be deducted. For the purpose of the PSIA method, positive impacts are described as activities that provide value to stakeholders and looks beyond mere compliance. Application of ToC in reference scale development would enabled us to clearly define how positive impacts are addressed in PSIA. Assessing intermediate positive performance and ideal performance at different points on the impact pathway, would allow us to create a separation between the upper levels of reference scales and limit potential overlaps.
The next steps are to use these guidance principles to revise and streamline the reference scales currently presented in the PSIA method. Furthermore, applicability of the revised reference scales should be tested on case studies prior to making the method public. Additionally, the method should be subjected to external review process.
Social Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) strives to consider both positive and negative impacts of the product life cycle. The UNEP/SETAC Guidelines describes positive impacts as performance beyond compliance with local laws, international agreements or certification schemes (UNEP/SETAC, 2009). It is understood that positive impacts should provide additional benefits to the addressed stakeholders and recognise not only achievement of minimum benchmark.
In the Handbook for Product Social Impact Assessments (PSIA), positive impacts are assessed alongside negative impacts. Data is interpreted, and scores are attributed to each social topic in relation to a five-point scale (Fontes, 2016). The proposed scales are described in generic levels: (i) -2 non-acceptable performance, (ii) -1 intermediate negative performance, (iii) 0 aligned with international standards, (iv) +1 intermediate positive performance and (v) +2 ideal performance (ibid.).
In the initial process of developing the PSIA method, no formal guiding principles were used to establish reference scales for qualitative assessment. Defining a positive impact as intermediate positive performance and ideal performance appears to be too vague and leaves each position open for interpretation. Moreover, the lack of specific guiding principles has led to some inconsistencies in the reference scales presented throughout the Handbook. For certain social topics, benchmarks representing positive impacts capture compliance instead of the best practices e.g. the benchmark “Normal working week does not exceed legal limit or 48 hours for hourly workers. Overtime is voluntary and compensated at premium rate” is considered as the ideal performance for social topic “Working hours” (Fontes, 2016). This distinction appears to be odd as compensation of the overtime is regulated by appropriate laws and should be considered as compliance. Moreover, the reference scales presented in the PSIA method are contradicting with the description of positive impacts outlined in PSIA.
Thus, this work explores ways how to systematically address positive impacts in the Handbook for Product Social Impact Assessment. The aim to explore applicability of Theory of Change (ToC) and how the principles can be transferred to the Product Social Impact Assessment.
The literature concerning positive impacts in SLCA have been reviewed to better define positive impacts in PSIA and create a clearer understanding of aspects that should be assessed at the upper levels of reference scales. ToC has been adopted as guiding principle for establishing consistent reference scales for each of the social topics presented in PSIA.
Defining positive impacts
Review report on positive impacts in SLCA papers and case studies by Di Cesare et al. (2016) revealed that the concept of positive impacts is not clearly defined within SLCA methodology and no shared definition can be deducted. Authors define positive impacts is a number of different ways that mainly fall under two categories: “The net positive effect of an activity on a community and the well-being of individuals and families” and “An improvement related to the previous situation”. Interestingly, the method by Ciroth and Franze (2011) considers the absence of negative issues as a positive impact. However, study carried out by Di Cesare et al. (2016) emphasise that absence of negative impacts should not be regarded as positive impacts but neutral, which also supported by statements made in the UNEP Guidelines.
In accordance to the to the definitions listed above, this paper views positive impacts as those relating to activities that add/provide value to stakeholders and looks beyond mere compliance. Considering this, assessment of positive impacts in PSIA would now focus on whether supply chain actors are promoting good practices, carrying out interventions to improve conditions and whether the undertaken interventions are creating positive value for stakeholders. The reference scales would aim to assess the effort and will of supply chain actors to manage given social issues (Are the supply chain actors able to make improvements and are they willing to?). Hence, to achieve an ideal performance or positive impact, value chain actors would need to actively contribute.
Establishing consistent refence scales
To establish consistent reference scales for each social topic presented in PSIA, more detailed guiding principles are needed. As each intervention undertaken by the companies to promote good practices can be observed and measured at different points along an impact pathway, we decided to focus on certain points for each level on the reference scales. That is, interventions undertaken to improve working conditions were linked with the Theory of Change. In the literature, ToC is defined as “A causal flow that illustrates how a proposed set of interventions and inputs will result in specific outputs contributing to different outcomes leading to certain impacts” (Sustainable Food Lab, 2014).
Figure 1 Illustration of Theory of change
We decided to assess the ideal performance as an output from conducted interventions, as it is harder to disentangle the specific effects from interventions on outcome or impact level. That is, while the link between the carried-out activities and their immediate effects are relatively easy to recognise, this link is harder to acknowledge if performance is measured further down the impact pathway. Moreover, outcomes and impacts can take many years to evolve and manifest. That said, if the Theory of Change for certain inventions is clear, then it is recommended to measure further along the impact pathway e.g. Outcomes or Impacts.
The inclusion of stakeholder experiences and satisfaction with the undertaken interventions and application of though practices served as a way to assess outputs. The approach aims to give voice to the affected stakeholder group. Moreover, the reference scales consider whether good practices are supplemented by continuous improvement and sharing/reporting of the best practices, whereas, the intermediate positive performance was determined on Input and Activity level. More detailed guiding principles for establishing reference scales are described in Table 1 below.
Additionally, the table outlines the general criteria that have to be met for each level on the references scales. For levels 0 and -1, multiple options have been described depending on whether interventions are undertaken or not. For example, the first situation when a score of 0 can be assigned is if the local conditions are satisfactory or for certain social topics certifications can serve as sufficient proof of compliance. In the second situation, interventions are undertaken to improve local conditions (inputs or activities), however, no follow-up assessment is conducted to understand whether stakeholders are satisfied with provided interventions. That is, the usefulness of the activities is not clear.
Table 1 Guiding principles for establishing reference scales developed based on Theory of Change
Scrutiny of literature sources revealed that the concept of positive impacts is not clearly defined within SLCA methodology and no shared definition can be deducted. For the purpose of the further development of the PSIA method, positive impacts are described as activities that provide value to stakeholders and looks beyond mere compliance.
Guiding principles for establishing consistent references scales were proposed based on the Theory of Change. Application of ToC in reference scale development enabled us to clearly define how positive impacts will be addressed in PSIA. Assessing intermediate positive performance and ideal performance at different points on the impact pathway, allowed us to create a separation between the upper levels of reference scales.
The next steps are to use these guidance principles to revise and streamline the reference scales presented in PSIA for each of the social topics. Furthermore, applicability of the revised reference scales should be tested on case studies prior to making the method made public. Additionally, the method should be subjected to external review process.
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- Di Cesare, S., Silveri, F., Sala, S., & Petti. L. (2016). Positive impacts in social life cycle assessment: state of the art and the way forward. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-016-1169-7
- Fontes, J. (2016). Handbook-for-Product-Social-Impact-Assessment-3.0, 1–146.
- Ciroth A, Franze J (2011) LCA of an ecolabeled notebook. Green Delta and Federal Public Planning Service Sustainable Development, Berlin
- Sustainable Food Lab. (2014). Performance Measurement in Smallholder Supply Chains: A practitioners guide to developing a performance measurement approach. Retrieved from http://www.sustainablefoodlab.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Performance-Measurement-Practitioners-Guide-SFL-2014.pdf
- UNEP/SETAC. (2009). Guidelines for Social Life Cycle Assessment of Products. Management (Vol. 15). https://doi.org/DTI/1164/PA