The social dimension of sustainable product development

Abstract: Product development can play a key role in society’s transition toward sustainability. However, methodological support for this is immature, particularly regarding the social dimension, and as it remains largely unclear among companies what social sustainability means, it is hard for them to assess how they and their products contribute to a socially sustainable society or not. Because social sustainability has been overlooked for long in product development research, there is a need to build methodological foundations for how companies can integrate social sustainability considerations in in their practices.The overall aim of this thesis was to explore how the social dimension of sustainability could be strengthened in the context of product development and specifically how a systemic, systematic and strategic sustainability perspective could be included to provide better support for decision-making and innovation for social sustainability.The research included industrial case studies to explore current practices and needs, to prototype and test initial decision-support, to reflect on challenges and opportunities, and to create a conceptual approach for improving existing practices. Specific methods and techniques included literature reviews, interviews, prototyping and typology building.Insights include that: (i) organizations that show a better understanding of the complexity of social sustainability and have a broader perspective of its interdependencies have a way of organizing that overcomes traditional hierarchies and allows for more collaborative and strategic work in this area; (ii) the applied systems perspective clearly determines how encompassing and aligned the scope and definition of social sustainability become in an organization’s practices; (iii) social sustainability impacts connected to products’ lifecycles, when addressed, are often considered by functions outside of product development; (iv) analysis as decision-support has several limitations, particularly in dealing with supply chain impacts. Mitigating the risk of an unsustainable supply chain is unlikely to occur through simply selecting suppliers based on ‘country social sustainability score’, but rather requires making design decisions early in the innovation process and actively seeking to improve social conditions in the supply chains. Building on these insights, a typology containing three types of social sustainability approaches in product development organizations was developed. The insular, the connected and the systemic types describe elements that differentiate approaches, and that taken together determine when an approach has the potential to strategically contribute to social sustainability. The differences also determine the constraints that product developers work with when pursuing social sustainability goals. Integrating social sustainability in product development requires rethinking established practices. The possibility of just complementing previous theories and methodologies within sustainable product development with social sustainability aspects should not be taken for granted as there are significant differences and therefore more pervasive development of new theory and methodology might be needed. This should be investigated further. Identification of leverage points to intervene in organizations to help them shift to a more systemic perspective and maximize the organization’s ability to strategically work with social sustainability is also an interesting line of further research.

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