Buying that new mobile phone may make your life easier, provide continuous access to the net and change your image, but what social impact will your action have on others? Different stakeholders along the life cycle of the mobile phone will be affected, in positive and negative ways. Who is responsible and how can we know the impact?
Handling environmental impact with a life cycle perspective, for example using life cycle assessment (LCA), is today common practice. A similar technique for social impact, social and socio-economic LCA (S-LCA) is under development (Benoit and Mazijn, 2009). The aim of the current pre-study was to consider the use of S-LCA for information and communication technology (ICT) services to learn more about the product and facilitate consideration of social impact in different decision-making situations.
From a company perspective, social responsibility is handled in various ways, often under the heading of CSR, corporate social responsibility. Firstly, the company’s own employees are easily targeted and acted on by providing good working conditions, fair wages and working hours, etc. Considering social impact throughout a product’s life cycle is the next step and here measures and responsibilities are less clear-cut. How is a product distributed (supply chain), how is it used and how is it finally disposed? Different stakeholders are differently affected, positively and negatively.
Four companies and organisations, all partners in the Centre for Sustainable Communications, took part in this study. They currently have different experiences and degrees of activity regarding social responsibility. The telecommunications companies, Ericsson and TeliaSonera, have started to consider social aspects in their supply chain and for their consumers. Social aspects are not only considered in terms of impact of the company management but also of impact related to products (goods and services). The media organisations (Bonnier Group and the Swedish Media Association) have not handled social aspects to the same extent as the telecommunications companies, but of course their products also give rise to social impact throughout their life cycles.
To enable a discussion on the usability of S-LCA, a simplified test was carried out, inspired by the ongoing work on including social aspects into LCA within the UNEP-SETAC Life Cycle Initiative (Benoit and Mazijn, 2009). This screening test was based on a selection of published and readily available information on potential social impacts along the life cycle of two defined ICT services. The goal was not to provide an assessment of social impact, but rather to give a rough sketch and reflect on possibilities and limitations with the method. The two ICT services in the test were mobile news and video conferencing, provided by a newspaper company and a telecommunications company respectively. An interesting feature of both these services was that the company providing the service was not providing the electronic device, the hardware platform of the service. This gives one more dimension in the consideration of who is responsible for social impacts with a life cycle perspective.
There was a lot of information available on potential social impact for parts of the respective life cycles. This kind of information is gathered by scientists, NGOs and others. A small share of the information was compiled for the selected stakeholder groups: worker and consumer. This information indicated that there are social impacts all
along the life cycle and that these may be positive or negative and of differing magnitude. As stakeholders become aware of the possible negative social impact, increasing engagement from organizations and companies in social responsibility will be requested.
When companies start to consider social impacts in the supply chain, it is expected to be easier to reach the first and second tier of suppliers. However, ILO (2007) has established that the workers at the beginning of the supply chain (farthest away from the end-product) are generally the most disadvantaged. In some cases, handling e-waste is also leading to major negative social impacts. Raw material acquisition and waste management may have large implications on the social impact related to a product, with best case or worst case possibly leading to significantly different results. A life cycle perspective would facilitate identification of improvement potential. A key question is who is responsible, or rather who will accept responsibility.
As there is information available for parts of the processes and stakeholders throughout the life cycle of the ICT services studied, the question remains how this information can be used by companies providing products for end-consumers. This pre-study indicates that it can be useful to apply a life cycle perspective and compile data in relation to a specific product also when considering potential social impacts. This would facilitate the inclusion of processes and stakeholders for example at the beginning of the life cycle, where impact may be considerable and negative, and make these more visible. Development of S-LCA is thus interesting in order to provide transparent and ‘standardised’ assessments of potential social impact. By providing guidelines or standards, the assessments of social impact could be interpreted and criticised more easily. The possibilities for using S-LCA to increase knowledge and ultimately improve social conditions should be further studied and developed.
In the field of S-LCA there is plenty of future research to be carried out, examples of which are provided by Benoit and Mazijn (2009). One important way of getting more experience and enabling further development of the method and its practice is through performing case studies. ICT products would be an interesting field for this.
social impact, information and communciation technology (ICT), assessment, social life cycle assessment, telecom, media, company