Beyond a CSR context towards pluralism in SLCA: exploring alternative social theoretical perspectives
Conference contribution, 2018
Most current efforts in social life cycle assessment (SLCA), and in particular the UNEP/SETAC guidelines, have corporate social responsibility (CSR) as underpinning theoretical perspective. However, over 50 years of studies on CSR suggest that the companies themselves have benefitted more than has society. CSR has therefore been criticised for legitimising and consolidating the power of large corporations. In response to this critique and since the social dimension of product life cycles is broader than the corporate perspective, we explore alternative theoretical perspectives that can inform SLCA. Two alternatives not departing from a corporate worldview are the theory of ecologically unequal exchange (TEUE) and actor-network-theory (ANT). TEUE highlights inequalities between different actors along product chains as manifested in today’s international trade, in particular between high- and low-income countries (Hornborg 2009). ANT is a descriptive approach for mapping networks of relationships between both actors and material (both technological and natural) entities (Latour 2005). Here, we explore a number of case studies informed by TEUE and ANT in order to identify the contribution of these alternative perspectives to SLCA. The covered cases include studies of airbag systems comparing health impacts mitigated by these devices to health impacts caused during their life cycle and cocoa supply chains through a north-south perspective. The analysis shows that these alternative perspectives add to the current SLCA framework in that they enable description of phenomena and issues hitherto uncovered by it. We go on to discuss the difference between description and assessment in SLCA and argue for greater pluralism in the theoretical and methodological approach to SLCA.
corporate social responsibility.
theory of ecologically unequal exchange
actor network theory
Social life cycle assessment
product chain organisation study