Purpose: Life cycle assessment (LCA) is commonly presented as a tool for rational decision-making. It has been increasingly used to support decision-making in situations where multiple actors possess diverse, and sometimes conflicting, perspectives, values and motives. Yet, little effort has been placed on understanding LCA in a social framework of action. This paper aims to analyse the legitimacy of LCA in public sector decision-making situations, the criticisms presented against LCA, and suggest potential ways to alleviate these criticisms.
Methods: This study consists of a case study of the application of LCA in the waste management sector in England and France. To gain an understanding of the justification and criticism of LCA, semi-structured interviews were undertaken with national and local level waste management actors. The justifications and criticism of the application of LCA was analysed through an analytical framework, the economies of worth.This suggests that in situations of disagreement, actors’ justifications are required to show their attachment to plural forms of common good. This work analyses the orders of worth in which justifications and criticisms of the application of LCA were based.
Results and discussion: LCA is applied primarily as a test of environmental efficiency, illustrating a collaboration between the industrial and green orders of worth. Actors apply LCA with the aspiration of replicating the scientific method and producing robust evidence to support the most efficient waste treatment option. In this case, efficiency is coupled with the green order of worth, where gains in efficiency mean lower environmental impacts. Internal criticisms of LCA, based in the industrial order of worth, highlights the limitations of LCA to act as a test of environmental efficiency. Furthermore, criticism based in the civic order of worth highlights the friction which arises in decision-making situations when LCA has been seen to subjugate the civic nature of waste management decisions.
Conclusions: One potential way forward for LCA may be to introduce aspects relevant in the civic order of worth which aims at achieving a compromise between the industrial and civic orders of worth. Envisioning LCA as a process-oriented tool, as opposed to an outcome-oriented tool, can allow for aspects on public involvement in the LCA process, thereby increasing its civic legitimacy.