Assessing social and economic impacts of building materials
Assessing Social and Economic Sustainability Impacts
of Building Materials
School of Architecture
University of Pretoria
Measuring sustainability aspects of building materials is complex. Despite this a wide
range of different methodologies and systems have been developed. Most of these focus
on environmental issues and are based on lifecycle assessment, or
similarmethodologies. While increasingly sophisticated systems are being developed to
capture and represent environmental impacts, limited progress has been made for
economic and social impacts.
In South Africa and other developing countries there is a strong interest in social and
economic impacts of building materials. In particular, there is a desire to ensure that
construction processes and built environment investments create social and economic
benefits such as jobs and improved health and education.
This paper explores the nature of social and economic sustainability impact
measurement and representation in relation to building materials. A review of existing
methodologies is carried out to understand the field and the applicability of current
systems to building material industries in South Africa.
The paper concludes that while current assessment systems may be applied locally,
none of these support standardised social and economic impact assessments of building
materials. It therefore recommends further investigation and development of the most
applicable methodology in order to establish whether a standardised process can be
developed. In addition, it suggests that an alternative simpler methodology be
investigated. In this respect an outline methodology, the Sustainable Building Material
Index (SBMI), is proposed.
Building materials, economic, methodology, social, sustainability
This paper investigates social and economic sustainability impact assessment in
building materials. In particular, it aims to identify suitable methodologies that can be
used to measure and represent social and economic sustainability impacts of building
products in South Africa. This objective can be summarised in the following way:
An objective way of measuring, and representing, the key social and economic
sustainability impacts related to the building products and their lifecycles, in order to
enable building products to be compared.
This summaryraises a number of questions, including:
How is sustainability defined?
How are building products defined?
These questions are addressed in order to define the theoretical basis and scope of the
There are a range of definitions for sustainability. The concept of sustainable
development was initially popularised in Our Common Future, a report published by the
World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987. This defined sustainable
..development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of
future generations to meet their own needs (United Nations General Assembly 1987).
In the paper this definition is referred to as the ND-FG definition. Another definition by
The World Conservation Union, the United Nations Environment Programme and the
World Wide Fund for Nature developed in 1991 is:
...improving the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity of
supporting eco-systems (IUCN/UNEP/WWF 1991).
The first definition is difficult to apply to the building product industry, however the
second, which has a very similar meaning, is much easier to apply as it includes
objectives that can be quantified. These objectives are: ‘improving quality of human
life’ and ‘living within carrying capacity of supporting eco-systems’.
These objectives have been quantified in to sustainability targets by the World Wildlife
Fund (WWF). WWF defines sustainability as the achievement of an Ecological
Footprint of less than 1.8 global hectares per person and the achievement of a Human
Development Index value of above 0.8 (WWF 2006). In this paper, this definition is
referred to as the HDI-EF definition.
An Ecological Footprint is an estimate of the amount of biologically productive land
and sea required to provide the resources a human population consumes and absorb the
corresponding waste. These estimates are based on consumption of resources and
production of waste and emissions.
The area of biologically productive land and sea for each of these areas is calculated in
global hectares (gha) and then added together to provide an overall ecological footprint
(Wackernagel and Yount 2000). This measure is useful as it enables the impact of
infrastructure and lifestyles to be measured in relation to the earth’s carrying capacity of
1.8 global hectares (gha) per person.
The Human Development Index was developed by the United Nations as an alternative
to economic progress indicators and aimed to provide a broader measure that defined
human development as a process of enlarging people’s choices and enhancing human
capabilities (United Nations Development Programme 2007). The measure is useful as
it provides an internationally acceptable definition of quality of life and the data on
which it is based is readily available.
The HDI-EF definition of sustainability provides clear, quantifiable targets that can be
aimed for and it provides a clear framework against which respective building and
construction elements and processes can be evaluated. Therefore it is proposed that this
definition is used as a working description of sustainability for this project.
Defining Building Products
Building products are defined in terms of a lifecycle approach and are taken to include
all the processes associated with a product, service, or organization from a supply chain
perspective, including all phases from raw material acquisition through processing,
distribution, use, and end-of-life processes (ISO 2006).
In order to support social and economic impact comparisons between building products,
building products are defined in terms of quantities of final useful constructed elements
such as area of compliant wall assembly. This may be referred to as the ’Functional
Unit’ and is defined in ISO 14044 as the quantified performance of a product system for
use as a reference unit (ISO 2006).
A review of the field indicates that most of the existing methodologies are not directly
applicable to assessing social and economic sustainability in building materials. Three
methodologies however emerge as being relevant for further analysis. These are:
Global Reporting Initiative
ISO 26000 Guidance on Social Responsibility
Guidelines for Social Lifecycle Assessment of Products
Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)
The first Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) sustainability reporting framework was
developed in 2000 by the Global Reporting Institute. The GRI is an independent
institute based in the Netherlands. The organisation argued that the scale of the
sustainability threat required organisations to report on sustainability and ensure that
they are transparent about their economic, environmental and social impacts. To support
this is a globally shared framework of concepts, consistent language, and metrics is
required (GRI 2011). The GRI suggests that their framework provides this and is:
‘atrusted and credible framework for sustainability reporting that can be used by
organizations of any size, sector, or location’(GRI 2011).
The GRI aims to support accountability to internal and external stakeholders by
reporting on organisational performance in relation to the goal of sustainable
The methodology has a strong emphasis on stakeholder involvement. This is reflected in
the way the content of sustainability reports by organisations is developed. The GRI
suggests that content can be defined by the organisation itself and stakeholders in the
This determination should be made by considering both the organization’s purpose and
experience, and the reasonable expectations and interests of the organization’s
stakeholders. (GRI 2011)
GRI reports are structured around what is called standard disclosure which has three
parts. These are:
Strategy and Profile: Disclosures that set the overall context for understanding
organizational performance such as its strategy, profile, and governance.
Management Approach: Disclosures that cover how an organization addresses
a given set of topics in order to provide context for understanding performance
in a specific area.
Performance Indicators: Indicators that elicit comparable information on the
economic, environmental, and social performance of the organisation. (GRI 2011)
The GRI Sustainability Reporting Guidelines contain indicator protocols which include
guidance on how to compile reports under the headings: relevance, compilation,
definitions, documentation and references(GRI 2011).
While the methodology does not support a rating or an aggregated quantified measure
or index of performance, reports are differentiated by what is termed ‘Application
Levels‘. These levels are titled C, B and A and indicate increasing application or
coverage of the GRI framework. The GRI requires all reports to include a statement of
this level in all reports referred to as an ‘Application Level Check’. The GRI
recommends the use of external assurance processes in the reporting process. Where
this complies with GRI requirements a ‘+‘ can be added to the Application Level, so an
‘A+‘ can be achieved(GRI 2011). .
ISO 26000 Guidance on Social Responsibility (ISO)
ISO 26000 on Social Responsibility is a standard developed by the International
Standards Organisations (ISO). The South African Bureau of Standards have adopted
this standard in it’s entirely and refer to this as SANS 26000 Guidance on Social
Responsibility. ISO standards are developed by technical committees and the
development of ISO 26000 involved experts from both development and developing
countries. The Standard responds to an increasing interest in social responsibility and a
need for guidance in this area:
Organizations around the world, and their stakeholders, are becoming increasingly
aware of the need for and benefits of socially responsible behaviour. The objective of
social responsibility is to contribute to sustainable development (ISO 2010).
It aims to provide guidance and in this respect is significantly different to other ISO
standards which describe technical requirements that must be achieved in order to
comply with the standard. This goal is stated as:
To provide guidance on the underlying principles of social responsibility, recognizing
social responsibility and engaging stakeholders, the core subjects and issues pertaining
to social responsibility and on ways to integrate socially responsible behaviour into the
It defines social responsibility and sets out a number of key principles that should be
complied with this. It sets out seven core subjects and provides detailed guidance on
each of these in terms of scope, relationship to social sustainability, related principles,
actions and expectations (ISO 2010).
The Standard is similar to the GRI system as it advocates active engagement with
stakeholders and provides guidance on how relationships between organisations,
stakeholders and society should be structured.
Guidelines for Social Lifecycle Assessment of Products (GSLAP)
The Guidelines for Social Lifecycle Assessment of Products was developed by the
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in association with a range of
industry partners including The Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry
(SETAC). The guide was developed by project groups over a period of 5 years, from
2004 to 2009. The terms of reference for this group were:
To convert the current environmental tool LCA into a triple-bottom-line
To establish a framework for the inclusion of socio-economic benefits into LCA,
To determine the implications for LCI analysis,
To determine the implications for LCIA,
To provide an international forum for the sharing of experiences with the
integration of social aspects into LCA(ISO 2010).
The guidelines were developed to address perceived gaps in environmental lifecycle
assessments. In particular, there was a concern that this approach did address key
developing country issues:
It was motivated by a consensus that “the use of LCA is hampered in developing
countries clearly due to lack of expertise, data etc., but also due to the inability of LCA
to engage in developing countries key issues.”(ISO 2010).
With the increasing emphasis in developed countries on sustainability there was also a
concern that the existing environmental LCA processes were not comprehensive
Environmental LCA, in itself, does not provide all the information to make decisions in
a sustainability perspective. A S-LCA provides complementary information, providing a
more comprehensive picture of the products’ life cycle impacts(ISO 2010).
The guide describes a methodology that can be followed to undertake social lifecycle
assessments (S-LCA). The recommended process for the S-LCA follows the
environmental lifecycle assessment (E-LCA) process as set out in ISO 14044. The guide
however indicates that there are differences between the two assessments processes and
provides guidance on how to address this. A key difference between an E-LCA and an
S-LCA is the intent by an S-LCA to assess social impacts. Social impacts in the guide
are defined as:
Social impacts are consequences of positive or negative pressures on social endpoints
(i.e. well-being of stakeholders) (ISO 2010).
The guidelines organise social impacts in relation to stakeholder and decision-maker
groupings. Stakeholder groupings are defined in terms of whether they have similar
interests in relation to the investigated product systems.
The first step of the assessment is the goal and scope of the assessment. This establishes
the aim of the intended assessment, the functional unit, the reference flow, the product
system(s) under study and the breadth and depth of the study in relation to this aim.
The functional unit is defined as the quantified performance of a product system for use
as a reference unit in a life cycle assessment study (ISO 2006). In the S-LCA the
production function also needs to include technical and social utility.
The next stage in the assessment is referred to as the inventory phase, in which data is
collected and systems are modelled. The guide emphasises that the process is data
intensive and that planning for data should be included at the outset of the project, when
the goal and scope are defined. In particular, it suggests that prioritisation should take
place to ensure that only the most relevant data is collected because of the cost and time
involved. Suggested sources of data in this phase include
Directed and semi-directed interviews
Questionnaires and surveys(ISO 2010).
The guide indicates that an S-LCA is different from E-LCA as it may rely on qualitative
and subjective data. It suggests that in some cases this is the most appropriate data. For
instance, the subjective perceived worker impressions of their conditions may be more
relevant than objective quantitative data such as observed worker arrival time or other
In line with ISO 14044, the guide recommends that validation of data is carried out to
confirm and provide evidence that the data quality for the intended purpose of the
assessment has been achieved.
Guidance is provided on setting out conclusions, recommendations and reporting in
assessment reports. It suggests that these should refer back to the requirements set for
the assessment. It suggests that reporting should be transparent, with all assumptions,
rationales, and choices indicated. Recommendations made in report should provide
actions that can be taken as a result of the assessment to improve social impact. These
may be presented differently depending on the intended audience.
Having reviewed the GRI, ISO and GSLAP methodologies the following questions can
How do the methodologies define social and economic impacts?
Do the methodologies support social and economic impact comparisons between
Defining Social and Economic Impact
All of the methodologies state that the reason for assessing social and economic impact
is to support sustainable development. Definitions of sustainable development used in
the methodologies refer to the ND-FG sustainability definition.
While this definition is widely accepted, it is also open to different interpretations. This
is evident from the methodologies, which all use different criteria to assess
sustainability and sustainable development. The GRI has a comprehensive set of
indicators to report on social and economic impacts. The ISO and GSLAP have fewer
indicators and these focus on issues such as human rights, labour practices and
stakeholder involvement. The selection of theND-FG sustainability definition also
means that the methodologies do not set specific targets that can be strived for. Instead
they only suggest the best solution of those being considered, be selected.
This approach is problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, unless sustainability
assessment criteria can be justified and a theoretical underpinning provided, it could be
argued that their selection, development and structure is arbitrary (Perspect et al 2008).
For instance, how can the criteria: ‘fair operating practices‘and ‘cultural heritage‘ be
justified? What defines which criteria can, and cannot, be used? Without a firm
theoretical basis, it could easily be argued that a wide range of other criteria, such as
‘aesthetic beauty‘, or ‘traditional values‘, should also be included.
Secondly, the variation in range and type of criteria used in methodologies indicates a
lack of consensus in the field which makes it difficult for users to have confidence in the
tools. Jørgensen attributes this to the fact that field is still new and immature (Jørgensen
et al 2008).
Thirdly, without specific targets, any improvement can be presented as significant
success or progress. This may result in methodologies reinforcing poor practice rather
than encouraging the actual scale of change required to achieve sustainability, as
defined by climate science. Clearly given the scale and urgency with which sustainable
development must be carried out,at least minimum performance standards must be set
and it is inadequate to only promote what may be very small improvements. In addition,
without challenging targets, the development of innovative and alternative solutions
which may enable significant levels of improvement relative to conventional solutions,
will not be supported.
These problems may be addressed by using the quantified definition of sustainability
(HDI-EF definition) referred to in the introduction of this paper. While this is a simple
definition, it provides an effective framework for defining the criteria that should, and
should not, be included. Secondly, it can be used to define targets and minimum
standards. Both of these aspects are useful in relation to assessing sustainability (and
social and economic impact) of building materials, as it enables the critical criteria to be
defined and can be used to propose specific targets and standards within these areas.
Supporting Comparisons between Building Materials
GRI, ISO and GSLAP methodologies do not support comparisons between building
materials. The GRI leaves the selection of criteria within the GRI framework to the
practitioners undertaking sustainability reports. This means that while the framework is
standard, the way it is applied, is not.Comparisons are therefore not supported. Theonly
differentiation included by the methodology is at the level of reporting. Reference is
made to letters (A,B,C) and pluses (+) to reflect the extent and nature of the report but
this does reflect the level performance of the organisation. Thus an organisation with
negative and deteriorating social, economic and environmental impacts could achieve
an A+, the highest score, even though it clearly did not support sustainable
The ISO methodology repeatedly refers to itself as guidance and warns against any
usage of the methodology for certification or assessment. This seems sensible as many
of the criteria referred to in the framework such as ‘accountability’, ‘transparency’,
‘ethical behaviour’ and ‘respect for international norms of behaviour’ are not defined
sufficiently for any assessment process to be effective. In general, these criteria are set
out as aspirational goals for organisations. Therefore without significant interpretation
of these criteria in to standards and specific measureable targets this is not a
methodology that can be applied to building industry to compare products and is more
appropriate for defining organisational ambitions.
The GSLAP methodology, of the three methodologies, most readily lends itself as a tool
for comparing social and economic impacts of building materials. It aligns with a tried
and tested methodology, the ISO 14040 methodology, and builds on the experience
developed in environmental lifecycle assessment. There are however a number of
drawbacks with applying the methodology to building product comparisons. Firstly, it
suffers, like the GRI methodology, from non-standard application. Within the GSLAP
methodology, practitioners are allowed flexibility to select the criteria and scope of
assessments. Secondly, the GSLAP methodology argues that the criteria selected should
be dictated by the goal and scope of the assessment. This non-standard application
prevents comparisons between industries and products.
In addition, the GSLAP methodology suggests that the use of subjective, qualitative
indicative criteria, in particular circumstances, may be more suitable than objective
qualitative criteria. While this may be true in certain situations, it clearly does not
support comparisons or standardised objective assessments.
Conclusions and Further Research
The GRI, ISO and GSLAP methodologies are relevant and may be usefully applied to
the South African building industry. However, none of these methodologies can be
readily, and easily, applied to assess and compare social and economic impacts within
the building product industry.
Of these methodologies, the GSLAP methodology comes closest to meeting the
requirements of a social and economic assessment system for building materials that
Further research should be carried out by applying the GSLAP methodology to building
materials in order to ascertain whether the methodology can be standardised to support
building material comparisons.
In addition, it is recommended that an objective, quantitative methodology be developed
and tested. This methodology is referred to as the Sustainable Building Materials Index
(SBMI) and would provide a simple index of sustainability performance of building
materials. The SBMI would be based on the following specification:
The methodology would align with the HDI-EF definition of sustainability and
aim to support the achievement of quantified sustainability targets, as set out in
The selection and development of criteria within the methodology would be
defined and delimited by HDI-EF sustainability definition.
The measurement of criteria would be standardised and data normalised to
enable comparisons between building products.
Where possible, the selection of criteria would be based on data that building
product manufacturers had readily available. Therefore compiling an index
assessment for building product should be reasonably cost effective and rapid.
The methodology would draw on aspects of the lifecycle analysis methodology
and, in particular, use the concept of the ‘Functional Unit’ to support
comparisons between different building materials.
Funding from the Clay Brick Association and Swiss Contact for this study is
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