Product Carbon Footprinting

Product carbon footprinting is an increasingly popular method for assessing impacts of business operations on the climate. The initiative has a number of benefits for companies that implement it.

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Meaning

Product carbon footprinting traces the life of a single product from cradle to grave (i.e. from raw material extraction to product disposal) and measures the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from each stage. This is done using the well-known methodology of Life Cycle Assessment, which is used for assessing various environmental impacts of products, one of them being a product’s carbon footprint. The Life Cycle Assessment methodology is based on the ISO 1440 and ISO 14044 standards.

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Depending on the product life cycle stages assessed, product carbon footprinting can be three main different types:

  • Cradle to Grave: a full life cycle assessment from raw material extraction to product disposal and treatment.
  • Cradle to Gate: an assessment of the impacts of a product from raw material extraction to the point at which the product leaves the studied company’s gate.
  • Gate to Gate: an assessment of the carbon emissions caused by a product within the boundary of the studied company.

Illustration of the Process 

The process of product carbon footprinting can be illustrated using a toaster as an example. Carbon emissions normally arise from every stage of a product’s life cycle, including:

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lifecycle3Extraction of raw materials that the different product components are made of. For a toaster, the two main materials would be plastic and metal. Carbon emissions would then result from the combustion of fuels by machinery used for the extraction and transportation of metal ore and fossil fuels. Emissions from transport and treatment of waste created during raw material extraction activities are also counted towards the carbon footprint of the toaster.

Transport of raw materials to processing facilities.

Processing of raw materials. In this stage crude raw materials are processed with water, heat, and/or chemicals to produce finer components that will later be used to construct the toaster. Direct and/or indirect emissions can result from all of these processes, as well as from transport and treatment of generated waste.

Transport of components to manufacturing facility.

Toaster manufacture. The different components are assembled together, consuming energy and often creating waste in the process.

Transport of the toaster to a retail store.

Storage phase. In the case of a toaster, no emissions would occur during this stage. However, emissions would occur if products were stored in a fridge or a freezer.

Transport to consumer’s place.

Usage phase. Carbon emissions from the average amount of energy used by the toaster over its lifetime are attributed to the toaster’s carbon footprint.

Disposal phase. Depending on how the toaster is treated after its end-of-life stage, its carbon footprint would be affected differently. Although disposing of the toaster in a landfill would not result in any carbon emissions, remanufacturing the product or recycling or reusing its parts would result in a lower carbon footprint, since those treatment actions would spare the carbon emissions from producing a new toaster.

The carbon emissions from each stage of the toaster’s life cycle are estimated on a per unit basis. In product life cycle analysis, the unit is a functional one, such as “a single toasted slice of bread” in order to allow comparison between the footprints of different products. The carbon footprint of a toaster would therefore be expressed in kg-s CO2-equivalent/single toasted slice of bread.  Back to Top

Benefits for Business

Companies who perform carbon footprint assessments of their products gain several benefits:

Marketing Advantage

Green Marketing - BagMarket demand for life cycle analysis has been growing over the last decade. As a result, a separate ISO Life Cycle Assessment standard (14067) was developed specifically for the evaluation of product carbon footprints, in addition to two other standards with the same purpose: the British PAS 2050 and the international GHG Protocol Product Accounting and Reporting Standard.

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72% of consumers in the EU and 80% in the UK demand that carbon footprint labels on products become a mandatory measure (based on a survey of over 26 500 respondents)[1]Eurobarometer (2009). Europeans’ attitudes towards the issue of sustainable consumption and production. [pdf] Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_256_en.pdf [Accessed 1 December 2014]. It was also found that that the environmental impact of products is equally as important as the price to 45% of EU consumers, equally as important as quality to 47% of EU consumers, and more important than price to 25% of EU consumers (based on a survey of 25 568 respondents)[2]Eurobarometer (2013). Attitudes of Europeans towards building the single market for green products. [pdf] Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_367_en.pdf [Accessed 3 December 2014]..

table 1

Table 1. Importance of environmental impact in purchasing decision

Fig 1. Consumer attitude towards mandatory carbon labeling of products.

 

Since 2007, a number of carbon labels have been introduced worldwide and implemented by companies and retailers.

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A Chance to Take a Better Look at the Supply ChainGreen Supply Chain 2

As the process of product carbon footprinting normally examines the life cycle of a product from cradle to gate or from cradle to grave, it is suitable for identifying risks and opportunities for cost savings in the supply chain.

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It also offers a chance to build better relationships with suppliers.

Picture3[3]Lee, K. H. (2011). Integrating carbon footprint into supply chain management: the case of Hyundai Motor Company (HMC) in the automobile industry. Journal of Cleaner Production, 19(11), pp.1216-1223.

Preparation for Future Policy

Corner of journal pagesThe European Union recently agreed on a 40% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels. For such an ambitious target to be met, stricter carbon management regulations and policies will need to be implemented by EU members.
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Product life cycle analysis is suitable for companies as a tool for reducing their carbon emissions, given the business opportunities it provides. The European Commission is currently developing a new Product Environmental Footprint method, which will measure all significant environmental impacts of products throughout their life cycle – including carbon emissions. The Commission aims to include footprinting on a product level in the environmental policy of EU member states. When product environmental footprinting becomes adopted on a large scale, SMEs will have to comply with environmental performance requirements set by large companies in their supply chain.

References   [ + ]

1. Eurobarometer (2009). Europeans’ attitudes towards the issue of sustainable consumption and production. [pdf] Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_256_en.pdf [Accessed 1 December 2014]
2. Eurobarometer (2013). Attitudes of Europeans towards building the single market for green products. [pdf] Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/flash/fl_367_en.pdf [Accessed 3 December 2014].
3. Lee, K. H. (2011). Integrating carbon footprint into supply chain management: the case of Hyundai Motor Company (HMC) in the automobile industry. Journal of Cleaner Production, 19(11), pp.1216-1223.

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