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Key Observations

Within the UNEP/SETAC Flagship Project 3a report (Barthel et al. 2014) some general observations were made with regard to the hotspots analysis methodologies analyzed therein. Several of these observations are discussed below.

Audience and Application

Existing hotspots analysis methodologies are being developed with a number of audiences and sustainability-based applications in mind. Some studies are being used to help government policy-makers to focus voluntary agreements or action plans with industry in areas where sustainability hotspots have been identified. For example, as is the case with WRAP's Product Sustainability Forum's work in the UK food chain, the French Government's work to provide more sustainability information to consumers, or the Water Footprint Network's analysis of water scarcity hotspots in major river catchments.

Businesses are using hotspots analysis to focus their resources, drawing up action plans and practical programs of work to eliminate, reduce or mitigate hotspots in their global value chains; and tackling major societal and commercial issues like food waste, food and resource security (future supply risk and resilience issues); and water use in agriculture. For example, the work of UK grocery retailer, Tesco, to tackle the food losses and food waste associated with the international sourcing of its products and their use by consumers; and the work of The Sustainability Consortium in building consensus around the key sustainability hotspots to address in consumer goods value chains. Other stakeholders are using the findings from hotspots analysis to inform their thinking. For example, the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University is working alongside WRAP in the UK to use hotspots analysis to inform its thinking on the research, policy and business drivers to facilitate a mass movement over time to healthier, more sustainable eating patterns or diets.

Beyond LCA

In some cases, the scope of hotspots analysis methodologies and studies are broadening beyond consideration of one or more environmental impact categories and including “beyond LCA” approaches and wider sustainability topics like biodiversity management, animal welfare, fair trading arrangements, land use and land use change and governance issues around raw materials or water resources.[1] This development would suggest that both methodology developers and users see the value in securing a more holistic view of hotspots, allowing them to identify where trade-offs may need to be considered (e.g., between traditional intensive agricultural practices and the potential impact on the agri-ecosystems that support them). The importance of taking a “beyond LCA” approach to the development of hotspots analysis methodology was also highlighted by stakeholders as important.

While there is still a clearly defined niche for traditional LCA approaches that solely utilize quantitative data and exclusively address environmental impacts, there are a growing number of hotspots analysis methodologies that move beyond traditional LCA and include either additional quantified data and information (e.g., trade, market and sales data; contextual sector or product category information; sup-porting scientific research and innovation; materiality studies); and/or qualitative inputs, such as expert opinions, stakeholder concerns, consumer attitudinal and behavioral insights, etc. This trend appears to be most prominent among productand sector-level hotspots analysis methodologies.

This observation does not preclude the fact that the majority of methodologies share a common foundation in that they utilize a life cycle approach to hotspots analysis. Most of the methodologies reviewed by the authors also follow a pragmatic approach that includes the identification of all life cycle aspects and impacts within a study boundary before applying materiality criteria or significance thresholds in order to define which ones are “hot”. In some circumstances (not necessarily for the key methodologies identified) a methodology may not consider the whole life cycle at the start, since there may be sufficient existing studies for the same sector or product category suggesting that the hotspots always lie in one or more specific life cycle stages.

The initiation of methodology development stems from a variety of different organisations, and is often linked to a specific objective. Governments may act in relation to policy objectives or priorities, whereas the private sector may act based on a recognition of a business case for action. NGOs may be informed by recognition that a methodology can help in articulating the need for action in line with their objectives.


Common features of all the methodologies identified by the authors are their engagement with a wide stakeholder base in development and their quantitative nature, though some methodologies also incorporate qualitative information drawn from a range of sources. The majority are focused on multiple impacts and issues, with most covering a core set of environmental issues, though issue-specific methods also exist. The national-level methodologies reviewed exclusively utilize a quantitative approach which addresses environmental impacts, while sectoraland productlevel methodologies tend to be more diverse in the impacts and issues they address, as well as utilising qualitative elements.

While the hybrid funding of methodology development and application appears to be dominant among the methodologies, there is no common model applied at a national, sector, or product level.

Ease of Use

Another interesting observation that was alluded to in the analysis was that none of the hotspots analysis methodologies listed was “easy” to use. More than half were considered to be “difficult” requiring some expert knowledge or experience; and the remainder were considered as “moderate” and may require some expert guidance in order to use. As a tool that is used to facilitate decision-making as a precursor to (or in lieu of) a more detailed analysis, hotspots analysis still seems to require at least some expert input.


In terms of gaps, few methods appear to incorporate financial data, in particular on the costs and benefits of addressing hotspots. The methods are generally linked to quantification activity. Links to identification of a range of associated opportunities or solutions to reduce the impact of hotspots identified are often sparse, with notable exceptions in the methodologies developed by The Sustainability Consortium and WRAP's Product Sustainability Forum. Whilst the need for action is recognized in principle, its incorporation into methods is generally limited. In particular, there is a lack of guidance on how to assess the potential for reducing a hotspot.

  • [1] In the use of the term “beyond LCA” the authors mean that hotspots analysis, as a complementary tool, is able to expand upon the scope and range of impacts that may be identified via life cycle assessment (as encompassed by environmental life cycle assessment, social life cycle assessment and life cycle costing). “Beyond LCA” should not be interpreted as better than or superior to life cycle assessment. LCA and hotspots analysis are in fact complementary tools with their own strengths and limitations
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