Social Sustainability in Trade and Development Policy: A Life Cycle Approach to Understanding and Managing Social Risk Attributable to Production and Consumption in the EU-27

Ustaoğlu E., Pelletier N., Benoit C., Norris G.

Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, 2013

  • Publication Type: Book / Research Book
  • Publication Date: 2013
  • Publisher: Publications Office of the European Union
  • City: Luxembourg
  • Abdullah Gül University Affiliated: Yes


Improving social sustainability within Europe and abroad is among the founding premises of the European Union. European Commission external policy documents – in particular, those associated with trade and development - explicitly call for the use of policy instruments as a means of improving social conditions in third countries. Unclear, however, is the extent to which progress in social sustainability as a result of Commission policy measures is being assessed, or measures to further leverage improved social sustainability implemented. 
Life cycle thinking (LCT) refers to a management philosophy predicated on holistic consideration of management alternatives for the purpose of preventing unintentional burden shifting – whether between supply chain activities or issue areas. Significant strides have already been made in the environmental domain to operationalize life cycle thinking in European Commission policies, with supporting methodological norms, frameworks, tools and data. To date, comparable approaches and instruments are lacking in support of life cycle-based social sustainability policy initiatives. Such information and tools are critical in support of improved policy design, implementation, monitoring and/or reformulation.
Social risk refers to the potential for one or more parties to be exposed to negative social conditions that, in turn, undermine social sustainability. We conducted a macro-scale analysis of the social risk profile of EU-27 trade by combining trade statistics regarding imports from intra- and extra-territorial trading partners in 2010 with country and sector-specific social risk indicator data. These data cover 17 social themes in five thematic areas: Labour Rights and Decent Work; Health and Safety; Human Rights; Governance; and Community Infrastructure. We assessed the apparent social risk profiles of EU-27 imports based on consideration of country-of-origin social risk data only, compared to a life cycle-based social risk assessment which took into account the distribution of social risk along product supply chains. Our intention was to better understand how and to what extent current trade-based consumption in the EU-27 may be associated with socially unsustainable conditions, and the value of applying a life cycle perspective for sustainability management in this context. 
Our analysis underscores the importance of a life cycle-based approach to understanding and managing social risk in support of policies for socially sustainable development. Moreover, the methods and information presented herein offer a potentially powerful decision-support tool for policy makers wishing to better understand the magnitude and distribution of social risk associated with EU production and consumption patterns, the mitigation of which will contribute to socially sustainable development within Europe and abroad. A novel opportunity hence presents itself for decision makers and those who provide scientific and technical support to policy making to collaborate closely in moving forward the agenda for socially sustainable development. This will require the identification of strategic policy directions and supporting research projects, building upon existing, complementary environmental and economic sustainability assessment tools within the European Commission, which will continue to strengthen the elaboration, implementation, and impact assessment of science-based policy for sustainable development.