In September, a Roundtable of companies comprised of Ahold, AkzoNobel, BASF, BMW Group, Goodyear, L’Oréal, Marks & Spencer, Philips, RB, Steelcase, DSM and PRé Sustainability published a handbook on how to conduct a Product Social Impact Assessment. It’s the first of its kind, based on international standards and practical pilot projects, embraced by global industry leaders — and it may pave the way for a new global standard that many companies can benefit from.
Here, representatives from several Roundtable members discuss some of the thinking behind the Assessment, its applications to date, and its potential.
PRé Sustainability is known as a pioneer in life-cycle thinking and the development of new methodologies and tools. While the metrics for environmental life-cycle assessments have developed significantly over the last two decades, a shared industry-led methodology to measure social sustainability at product level was still absent. PRé therefore invited experts from large companies to join forces and initiate the Roundtable for Product Social Metrics, the goal of which was to develop a practical method to identify the effects of products on people during the products’ life cycle.
“The key success factor for any methodology is whether it is applicable for companies in diverse industries. Therefore we are very pleased that BMW, DSM, Steelcase and other Roundtable members have piloted the methodology. This gives us insights into whether it can be improved and shows the benefits of product social impact assessments,” says João Fontes, Project Manager of the Roundtable at PRé Sustainability.
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“Stakeholders expect clarity regarding the social impact of products, which is why a sound and well-founded answer is imperative. Companies are increasingly aware of the effect they are having on people’s lives,” says Jacobine Das Gupta, Sustainability Program Manager of People+ at DSM. “At the same time more and more consumers value socially responsible products. Transparency is key in this respect. Our ambition at DSM is to develop products that make a difference with a reduced environmental impact (ECO+) and a positive effect on people lives (People+).”
One step further
It is imperative for any company to keep a close eye on working conditions and take steps to enhance sustainable employability of its personnel. DSM strives to go and step further with its People+ program.
Says Das Gupta: “To DSM, People+ means improving the health and well-being of end-users, as well as employees’ working conditions and benefitting the communities in our value chains.”
After developing an in-house measuring tool for the social aspects of People+ innovations, DSM joined forces with Pré Consultants, BMW Group, Steelcase and other industry peers to further develop a harmonized and shared methodology, resulting in the new handbook. It was reviewed by NGOs and scientists and based on principles and recommendations by international and renowned organizations such as the UNEP-SETAC working group, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).
An important element underpinning the new approach to measuring the social impact of products was pilot studies conducted by BMW, Steelcase and DSM.
“For BMW Group, a complete sustainability assessment is the basis for achieving a more sustainable product. Studies on the environmental impact of a product have been around for about 20 years, and they work well,” says Marzia Traverso, team member of the Total Vehicle Product Sustainability Office at the Research & Innovation Centre of BMW Group in Munich, Germany. “The social perspective at product level, however, presents some more challenges. We proposed a set of practicable and feasible indicators, developed quantitative and qualitative methods to assess the social impact of a product, and successfully tested the methods by applying them to the engine oil pans made of Stanyl® from DSM Engineering Plastics that are being used in BMWs.”
Steelcase, the global leader in the office furniture industry, is known for producing the world’s first Cradle-to-Cradle product, so participating in the development of new metrics for a product social impact assessment was the next logical step.
“We place a strong focus on life-cycle thinking and eco design, so it made a lot of sense to team up with DSM as one of our materials suppliers, and to jointly contribute to the development of this handbook on product social impact assessment," says Sébastien Zinck, Manager of Design for the Environment at Steelcase. "We selected DSM’s Akulon® as one of the materials used in an office chair’s component, collected all the relevant datasets, and also included the supplier who took care of the injection molding. While testing the validity and effectiveness of the newly developed metrics, we were confronted with some challenging questions: How can we connect the comfort provided by a chair and the user’s well-being via social metrics? And how can we best describe the user experience of such a product in a standardized fashion? But we managed to clarify many issues, and based on the Akulon® case, we can see lots of potential for the application of Social LCAs in the future.”
Traverso says she is optimistic after the first successful pilots and has set her sights on achieving a faster pace.
“BMW strongly endorses a holistic approach to sustainability, and with the new, proven metrics in place we can prepare for the next step,” she says. “But let’s move ahead swiftly. It took some 20 years before the environmental impact study of products became a matured and broadly accepted approach among different types of industries. I hope that this new social impact measurement method will be embraced by industry a lot sooner.”
Zinck also foresees additional homework in the near future.
“Looking ahead, I feel it’s important to further bridge the gap between academic research and industrial needs, in order to combine both technical relevance and implementation efficiency in an even more effective manner. Moreover, I think modesty is an important value in this respect. This handbook is not the final solution, but another iteration, another step in the field of Social LCA. It happens now and then that new initiatives have sky-high pretentions and even claim that they’re actually uncovering the holy grail. This is a complex matter, so we need to be humble and move on — sharing, testing, questioning our own assumptions, setting up new pilots — and in this way, truly moving ahead.”
The business opportunity
Das Gupta concludes: “For most companies, product social impact assessments represent uncharted ground. What makes this initiative unique is that there are major international and influential players involved that are all on the same page when it comes to their aim to make a measurable positive impact on society. We are happy to see that this approach is warmly received, not least because of the practical and positive approach towards the problems. This method offers companies to understand and mitigate any potential risks as well as discover and emphasize the benefits for people. Introducing this new way of measurement represents to us a range of new business opportunities to DSM and another way of making our brand promise ‘Creating brighter lives’ tangible.”
For more information or a download of the handbook go to www.product-social-impact-assessment.com/handbook.