Updated: Aug 16, 2022
So glad you’re here to nerd out with us.
This article is going to cover all the basic details you to know what is a carbon footprint, how is it measured, and what you can do with the information.
The first thing you need to know about carbon footprint is that it can be measured either on a product level or an organizational level. It can also be done on an individual basis or for an entire country. This article is going to focus just on the product level carbon footprint. For organizational level carbon footprint details, check out our other article here.
If you’re reading this article, chances are that you know what a carbon footprint is and you also understand its importance. Perhaps, you have heard that carbon is the new calorie. Meaning that in the years to come, carbon labels will be as widespread and common as the caloric and nutritional information on packaging of our foods that we buy.
Carbon labelling is key in helping our consumers make the right environmental decision. As consumers, we don’t have an intuitive sense of the environmental cost of different products.
Is it better to purchase cucumbers from a greenhouse or those which are imported?
Is it better to purchase a beverage in a glass container or a metal one?
We care about our planet and want to make the right choice. But without the facts at our fingertips, we are left to make decisions with our senses.
But this is not good enough. The climate crisis is here. We need to use science and facts to make decisions if we want to mitigate the worst of this crisis.
Ok. Enough doom and gloom.
Let’s get into it.
What is a carbon footprint?
Carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted, expressed as carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent numbers. There are many greenhouse gases (CO2 being the most famous) and each has a different impact on global warming. Meaning that some are more potent than others.
To make the potential impact of any greenhouse gas easier to understand, they are communicated in relation to carbon dioxide (CO2=1). For example, methane (CH4), is a potent greenhouse gas. One of the most famous sources of methane is enteric fermentation from cows (yes, cow burps!). Methane has the global warming factor of 25 (according to IPCC). Meaning that methane is 25 times worse than CO2. So, carbon footprint is the total greenhouse gas emissions, expressed in CO2 equivalent, caused by a product, organization, service, or place.
How is carbon footprint calculated?
Remember how we mentioned that making sustainable choices as a consumer is difficult?
Well, thankfully there is a whole science out there to help us make better decisions. We just need the data to be more readily available. Hence the labels!
Carbon footprint is calculated is by conducting a life cycle assessment or LCA.
(Hang with me. It’s not that dry. I promise.)
Life cycle assessment is a basically a framework which calculates the emissions of a product at each life stage of a product. For any product out there, it is likely produced with some raw materials.
Let’s take a cotton tote bag for example. To make this product, the raw materials (cotton) were cultivated and then harvested. This stage is called raw materials extraction phase. At this stage, we take inventory of the inputs like fertilizer, water usage, etc. and take inventory of the outputs such as how much cotton was harvested, water run off, and emissions into air.
Then we take a look at the next step in the life of the cotton bag: production. The cotton is cleaned, made into yarn, and knitted into a fabric. Then the fabric is made into a bag. Again, we take inventory of the inputs (like electricity) and outputs (number of bags produced) of this stage.
Are you sensing a trend here?
Yes, we do this for every life cycle stage. Hence the term life cycle assessment.
The next step would be to analyze transportation. This happens between all stages but sometimes the longest journey happens when we transport a good from the manufacturer to the retailer.
Once, the bag is at the retailer, it may sit on the shelf for a bit until someone decided to purchase it. Nothing exciting happens here.
It’s important to know that the life of the bag doesn’t end once we, as consumers, purchase it. Now, the bag is put into use. This the next stage in it’s life cycle. The consumer take it to the supermarket and carries groceries in it. In between uses, the consumer may also wash the bag since it is reusable (yay for reusable items!).
But washing items also uses some inputs, like energy in the form of electricity (if using a washer and dryer). So we need to account for this too.
At the end of it’s life, we will make some predictions about what happens if it reaches a landfill or if it becomes repurposed into a new product.
(Image from ecosystems united)
This is in essence, how a life cycle assessment works. We look at each life cycle of a product and we take inventory of the input of resources and output of emissions. Once we gather all the outputs of emissions into air, we can calculate the carbon footprint of the cotton tote bag. Or any other product.
A note about life cycle assessments:
There are many ways of measuring environmental impact. Carbon footprint is just one of those measurements. The impact of emissions on our natural environment is complex. We can assess the impact of water and air emissions in multiple ways such as:
- Water consumption
- Human toxicity
- Aquatic and terrestrial toxicity
- Ozone depletion etc.
By now, we have described what is a carbon footprint and how to measure it.
You might be asking yourself, how can W2R Solutions or any consultant, help you to measure the carbon footprint of your products?
Well, we’re going to ask you many questions about your product. These are pretty technical and specific questions such as:
- How is your product made?
- Where was it made?
- What is the material composition?
- How will your customer use the product?
- How will it be disposed?
Some of these answers may be obvious. Others, you may need to ask your suppliers.
Don’t worry if you don’t know some of the answers. We understand that you likely don’t own the entire supply chain of your product from start to finish. Here, we rely on global databases to give us industry averages. For example, for how much fertilizer is used in cultivating cotton or how much energy is used to knit a bag.
We also have to make some assumptions in certain instances such as, how many times will the bag get washed and dried.
Now, what can you do with this information?
Well, it depends on your goals.
Once this works is done, you are left with a carbon footprint number for your product like you see below.
In the example above, we measure the carbon footprint of oat milk.
Each cup has the carbon footprint of 36 grams of CO2 equivalence. The pie chart on the right shows the breakdown of that carbon footprint per life cycle stage.
Now, we can compare this with other types of milk. Life the traditional cow's milk and other vegan-milks.
Plus, you can also:
Share it in your marketing to educate your customers on the benefits of your product/ service,
Include it in your next sales pitch,
Share it with investors in the next funding round to prove your impact, and
Put it on your product label to stand out among competitors.
How you decide to use this information is up to you! In the very least, sharing this information is going to show your transparency and commitment to environmental responsibility.
Recent research by IBM tells us that half of consumers surveyed said they’ve paid a premium—an average of 59% more—for products branded as sustainable or socially responsible in the last 12 months.
So when you can prove the sustainability of your products and do it transparently, you'll win more sales.
What's not to love about this?
Want to learn more about our approach to LCAs? Check out our services page here.