WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff

Product carbon footprinting: improving environmental performance and manufacturing efficiency

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Product carbon footprinting is based on life cycle assessment (LCA), which is a method of analysis that seeks to quantify the environmental and human-health impacts associated with products and services. LCAs have been used successfully to characterize a number of environmental and social impacts, examples of which include global warming, ecosystem health, and resource depletion.

The LCA Approach

The boundaries of LCA evaluations can encompass a “cradle-to-grave” approach and broadly include the extraction and processing of raw materials, production, consumer-use, and end-of-life scenarios, which may include recycling of materials.

The outcome of an LCA can be used to identify significant impacts on the environment and human health and can inform actions to reduce these impacts. Data and intelligence gathered through this process can also be used to inform strategy and identify design considerations that reduce product cost while also yielding environmental benefits and providing the opportunity to enhance brand value.

Product Carbon Footprinting

The term “product carbon footprinting” refers to using LCA to focus specifically on the quantification of greenhouse gas emissions throughout the product's life cycle. The results of a product carbon footprint are usually presented as a total absolute value of life-cycle carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2 e) emissions measured in kilograms or metric tonnes.

Many organizations have recognized that carbon footprinting provides the ability to evaluate the efficiency with which they produce goods and services using a different set of metrics. The process has enabled companies to improve the environmental performance of their business activities, reduce manufacturing and supply-chain costs, identify environmental risks in the supply chain, and position themselves to compete in a carbon-constrained

Business Drivers For Product Carbon Footprinting
The results of a carbon footprint can inform important business decisions and should be used as one of several indicators of product environmental performance. The key to effectively using carbon footprinting as a business tool is balancing the complexities of such an analysis with meaningful results that can be applied in a commercial context.

Even though there are no current regulatory requirements in the United States, there has recently been a dramatic increase in the number of companies that are examining the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the supply chain of their products and services. Carbon labeling of products is being actively explored in the United Kingdom and may be pursued in the US in the future.

The majority of companies that have reported GHG emissions are only accounting for their organization’s impact in an entity-wide GHG emissions inventory. As this article discusses, however, carbon footprinting that focuses on a specific product can offer significant value to business organizations.

In the authors' experience, companies are beginning to use the results of product carbon footprinting to reduce costs associated with manufacturing, energy use, waste, and packaging; to inform design using a lifecycle approach (Design for Environment); to manage their supply chain to drive greater environmental improvements; and to quantify the business value of their sustainability initiatives. These initiatives may yield immediate returns on investment.

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