New Metrics
Sustainability Mythbusters:
Is Minimizing Transportation Always Good?

As a science-based method, life cycle analysis (LCA) is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they aremyth or truth. In today’s episode: transportation.

Supply chains are often complex and interconnected. For companies that source from all over the world,tracing these supply chains is anything but straightforward. It is well known that cars and other forms of transportation produce greenhouse gases. Since the supply chain is often within the control of the company, it makes sense that companies often assume that transportation is a large source of impact and choose to focus on minimising this impact. But is that really always the best use of their efforts?

Look at the Full Life Cycle

It is important to look at environmental impacts across the full life cycle of products, from cradle to grave. A recent project I worked on with Bloomberg provides a good example of this. Bloomberg – the financial news and media giant that produces and distributes customer hardware – has a public commitment to improving its products for both its customers and the environment. Reducing transportation seemed like a ‘no brainer’ at first, until we took a closer look. We examined the impacts of Bloomberg’s flat screen panel and compared the results to a similar study conducted in 2010. Surprisingly, distribution contributed less than 2 percent of the product’s global warming impact. Instead, the 2010 study found that the customer use phase was by far the largest contributor to its global-warming potential. Therefore, when Bloomberg redesigned the model, they switched to an Energy Star product, which helped contribute to a 44 percent reduction in lifetime CO2 emissions.

Similarly, adjusting the lifetime of the product (changing the average from 4 to 5 years, for example) has a large impact on the product’s footprint. Creating a durable product that customers will keep for a longer period of time is much more important than the transportation impacts in this case (and likely in many others).

Minimizing Transportation Is Always Good: Myth or Not?

Status: busted.

It is important to look at a product’s full life cycle to understand a full picture of the environmental impacts. If transportation is an area where you can easily reduce emissions, of course this is worthwhile. However, there may be other areas that you aren’t considering, where your efforts may be more impactful. Before spending valuable resources on minimising transportation impacts, consider doing a screening LCA. Even if you are also planning to do a full LCA, starting with a screening LCA might be a good idea to see where to focus your data-collection efforts.

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