- the perspective of the assessment (e.g., biophysical limits or human wellbeing);
- desired features of the assessment (e.g., spatial or temporal focus);
- the acceptability criterion of Pope et al. (2004)  (e.g., is the goal of the assessment to reduce impacts or to reach explicitly defined sustainability goals?);
- values of the stakeholders (e.g., focus on general human well-being, personal well-being, or ecosystem well-being).
- identify a method based on explicit choices and all methods available and not necessarily the well-known method by the analyst;
- guide method selection from demand perspective (articulation of the question) rather than supply perspective;
- report the results of the assessment referring to the explicit choices made with question articulation, making results easier to understand, interpret and compare with other assessments.
- make method selection transparent and reproducible
- to confront the available assessment methods with the sustainability questions posed by society such as to propose a new organizing framework for selection of sustainability assessment methods: the sustainability assessment identification key;
- to present the design of the sustainability assessment identification key;
- to show how the sustainability assessment identification key (SA-IK) works.
2. Methods: Development of a Sustainability Assessment Identification Key
2.1. Terminology Used in This Article
2.2. Review on the Derivation of an Identification Key in General
2.3. Step 1: Identify Criteria
|Domain: System boundaries/Inventory|
|Object||What is the object of the assessment?|
Is it a physical object (product, chemical, process), or an organization, a region, a policy measure, an activity, etc…
|Spatial focus||What is the spatial focus of the activity?|
Is the activity assessed on micro or macro scale, and if on macro on local, regional or global scale?
|Temporal focus||What is the temporal focus of the assessment?|
Is the activity assessed retrospective, prospective or does a snapshot suffice?
|Life cycle thinking||Which parts of the life cycle or supply chain are included in the assessment?|
Only one phase, the whole life cycle, or something in between?
|Domain: Impact Assessment/Theme selection|
|What is to be sustained||What is to be sustained?|
Are these environmental, social, economic and/or institutional endpoints?
|Theme and indicator selection||Which themes are selected?|
Is the method transparent in the selection and use of indicators? What place on the cause effect chain do the indicators have? etc.
|Spatial focus of impact||What is the spatial scale of the impacts that should be taken into account?|
Does the assessment include intra-generational impacts? Or in other words: does the assessment aim at internal or external sustainability. Impacts at what scale are taken into account? Are they site-specific/dependent or independent?
|Temporal focus of the impact||What is the temporal scale of the impacts that should be taken into account?|
Does the assessment include inter-generational impacts? What time-frame should be included for the impacts?
|Sustainability target||Is a sustainability target necessary?|
If the goal is to compare alternatives, to perform a hotspot analysis or to improve an object, a sustainability target is not essential. If the goal of the analysis is to determine the sustainability of an object, a target is required. This is also referred to as direction to target (no target needed) or distant from target (target needed); and assessment impact-led (least impact, no target needed), objective-led (best positive contribution, no target needed) or assessment for sustainability (like the other two, but in relation to a specific sustainability target)?
|Values/View on sustainability||What view on sustainability should be leading in the assessment? Is sustainability understood as weak, strong or partly substitutional? In short: weak means that various capitals are interchangeable. Strong means that each capital should be preserved independently. Partly substitutional means weak until a critical level is reached, e.g., Critical Natural Capital (CNC) or planetary boundary. Also one’s world view (personal believes or risk perception) can influence the assessment.||[7,8,9,12,24,36,38,39,40,41,42,43]|
|View on integration of pillars||How should aggregation of information from different disciplines take place in the assessment?|
In a multi (separate), inter (connected) or trans (combined/holistic) disciplinary way?
|Normalisation/weighting/aggregation method||Which aggregation level is preferred and which methods are used?|
Both normalisation (make data comparable), weighting (specify interrelationships) and aggregation (get functional relationships) need careful consideration.
|Domain: Method Design|
|View on stakeholder involvement||Who should be involved in the assessment in which way?|
Also referred to as legitimacy, in relation to indices or composite indicators.
|Context of the assessment||How and by whom are the results used?|
In which (phase of a) procedure are the results of the assessment used? Is the goal of the measure: decision making and management, advocacy, participation and consensus building or research and analysis? Or is it a strategic, capital investment, design and development, communication and marketing or operational question?
|Uncertainties||How are uncertainties to be handled?|
Salience, credibility and variability? Should an uncertainty, sensitivity and/or perturbation analysis be included?
|Domain: Organisational restrictions|
|Formal requirements||Should the method be formally recognized?|
ISO, EC, etc.
|Expertise requirements and availability||Is there capacity for hiring expertise?|
Expertise requirements and availability
|Software requirements and availability||Is there capacity for acquiring software?|
Software requirements and availability
|Data requirements and availability||Is there capacity for gathering data?|
Data requirements and availability
2.4. Step 2: Assign the Criteria to Domains
2.5. Step 3: Build the Identification Key
2.6. Note on Theme Selection
3. Results: Examples of How the Identification Key Works and What Type of Problems It Solves
3.1. Example of Sustainability Assessment Identification Key Application
|Example 1||Example 2||Example 3|
|Question||How sustainable is our food pattern?||Question||How sustainable is our food pattern?||Question||How sustainable is our food pattern?|
|Sub Identification Key on System boundaries/Inventory|
|What is the object?||Products||What is the object?||Products||What is the object?||Geographical unit (river catchment)|
|Single product(s) or product group(s)?||Single products||Single product(s) or product group(s)?||Product groups|
|Should the product(s) life cycles be included?||Yes||Should a chain analysis be included||Yes||Should a chain analysis be included?||Yes|
|Which part of the life cycle?||Cradle to grave||Which part of the chain?||Upstream||Which part of the chain||Upstream|
|What is the spatial focus of the activity||Local||What is the spatial focus of the activity||Regional||What is the spatial focus of the activity||Continental|
|What is the temporal focus of the activity?||Snapshot||What is the temporal focus of the activity?||Snapshot||What is the temporal focus of the activity?||Prospective|
|Results sub IK System boundaries/Inventory||Life Cycle Inventory||Input Output Analysis, Material Flow Analysis, Substance Flow analysis, …||Input Output type of analysis in combination with scenario building|
|Sub Identification Key on Impact assessment/Theme selection|
|What is to be sustained?||Environment||What is to be sustained?||Resources||What is to be sustained?||Biodiversity|
|Which location on the cause effect chain is required?||Impact at endpoint||Which location on the cause effect chain is required?||Pressure||Which location on the cause effect chain is required?||Impact midpoint|
|Question||How sustainable is our food pattern?||Question||How sustainable is our food pattern?||Question||How sustainable is our food pattern?|
|Sub Identification Key on Impact assessment/Theme selection|
|Select themes||Climate change, acidification, eutrophication||Select themes||Economy, energy and material use||Select themes||Toxicity|
|Results sub IK Impact assessment/Theme selection||Endpoint Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) method||Input Output Analysis and Material Flow Analysis||Chemical Footprint method or Midpoint LCIA method,|
|Sub Identification Key on Aggregation/Interpretation|
|What type of analysis is required?||Direction to target||What type of analysis is required?||Direction to target||What type of analysis is required?||Distance from target|
|What type of sustainability goal is required?||A natural boundary|
|Which level of aggregation is required||Capitals||Which level of aggregation is required||Total||Which level of aggregation is required||Categories|
|What is the view on sustainability||Ecocentric||What is the view on sustainability||Weak|
|Result sub IK aggregation||LCIA endpoint damage method||Result sub IK aggregation||A Multi Criteria Analysis (MCA) like weighted summation or Multi Attribute Value Theory (MAVT)||Result sub IK aggregation||Footprint method|
|Match of sub IKs → method selection||Life Cycle Assessment with Endpoint LCIA method (e.g., ReCiPe)||Match of sub IKs → method selection||Material Flow Analysis and Input Output Analysis aggregated with MCA, e.g., MAVT||Match of sub IKs → method selection||Chemical pollution footprint method in combination with scenario building|
3.2. Confronting Sustainability Assessments in Scientific Literature with the Identification Key
3.2.1. Transparency on Method Selection
3.2.2. Prevent Inconsistencies between Introductions/Case Descriptions and Method Selection
3.2.3. Prevent Inconsistencies in Methodological Design
4. Discussion and Conclusions
- guide and make explicit choices in method selection and design, revealing assumptions that remain hidden in many studies;
- yield a better understanding of the question raised and how the question guides method selection
- enable a more robust interpretation of the results, because the results can be placed in the context of methodological choices;
- producing eventually more transparent and reproducible assessments;
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