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Background

PROSA has a long history, starting with a precursor method named Produktlinienanalyse (comprehensive product system assessment). In 1987 – five years before the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development – the Oeko-Institut developed Produktlinienanalyse as a method for analysing environmental, social and economic aspects throughout product lifecycles (Oeko-Institut 1997). The innovative tool came too early and was used rarely, in contrast to Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA), the competing method.

The study commission of the German Bundestag on the “Protection of Humanity and the Environment” (Enquete 1994) did much to raise the tool’s profile in the post-Rio period. A cooperative venture between the Oeko-Institut and Hoechst AG, the international chemical corporation, which wanted to develop a company-specific method to manage the sustainability of its products and product portfolio (Ewen et al. 1997) was a major step forward. Important elements of Produktlinienanalyse were retained in the reconfigured method which now received an English name: PROSA – Product Sustainability Assessment.

The initial PROSA methodology continued to be refined in specific aspects during the following years, mainly on the basis of experience gained with case studies. The decisive period of development towards a comprehensive method took place in the transdisciplinary methodology project reported on here which extended over several years – with funding from the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within the context of its “Social-ecological research” programme.

Methodology development was process-led throughout, involving an interdisciplinary project team which worked closely with practicians in industry and the policy realm. The goals of the development process were set jointly. In all, three drafts of the methodology were published, tested, debated and refined. As a first step in the project, a synopsis of the (rather modest) status of international methodology proposals, approaches and case studies on product-related sustainability assessment was compiled and the specific need for further development identified. The methodology development process was accompanied by a dissemination analysis in order to ascertain the barriers and conditions for successful and swift dissemination in practice. This led to the MIDI dissemination matrix, which was used on an ongoing basis to support the continuing development of PROSA.

Some measures were identified as key factors determining the success of PROSA. These measures were tackled directly and in a process-led fashion during the project and brought to a conclusion within the project’s term:

  • Detailed characterization of the Social LCA (SLCA) sub-method and its international harmonization
  • Organization, together with a renowned international management institute, of a major international congress bringing together numerous corporations; the congress focussed entirely on PROSA and related methods
  • Application of PROSA to a complex industrial product with global value chains

The transdisciplinary work process involved a broad array of elements. These included scientific workshops, participation in international bodies concerned with the methodological development of individual tools used in PROSA, study tours, the performance of new case studies during the project which were used to test the advanced method, and intensive exchange as well as joint projects with companies which were developing in parallel their own specific product sustainability tools (such as SEE Balance by BASF, PSAT by Procter&Gamble and the Sustainability Compass by Deutsche Telekom). The experience gained by other practicians and the requirements of stakeholders were surveyed by means of detailed structured interviews with international corporations, SMEs and NGOs in Europe and Asia. As it was found that unclear translations or terms giving rise to misunderstandings in context often impede international exchange on methodologies and case studies, a semi-encyclopaedic glossary of key concepts relating to product sustainability assessment was compiled and deployed.

The advances achieved were presented and documented during the term of the project in many publications, lectures and at several international congresses. In cooperation with IMD in Lausanne, PROSA was presented together with similar developments at a congress and debated with more than thirty major corporations.

When it emerged that the analysis of social aspects in the production of complex industrial products in global value chains presents a major challenge to PROSA in general and Social Life-Cycle Assessment in particular, a Case study on the manufacture of notebook PCs in China was performed. On this basis, the methodology of the social life cycle assessment (S-LCA) was internationally harmonized by a UNEP/SETAC working group and has been applied in various studies of the Oeko-Institut. The relevant documents can be found here.