It's easy to use 'common sense' and make assumptions in sustainability, but does that get you the results you want? As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or truth. In today’s episode: the drive towards zero emissions.
Consumer attention to environmental issues has helped to spur significant demand for more sustainable products. There is no doubt that the attention and efforts of companies large and small to fulfil on this demand have led to substantial advances in addressing sustainability issues, such as pollution.
As the sustainable product movement grows and matures, however, it is important to consider not only the products that we are purchasing, but also what it takes to manufacture and produce those products.
When Is Zero Actually Zero?
Let’s start by looking at so-called “zero emission” electric cars that are becoming more and more prevalent on the market today. While it is true that these cars do not have any direct emissions, it is very important to understand that the emissions are generally just ‘shifted’ to the power plant supplying the electricity.
This is a clear example, so let’s look at a more complex one. Many companies are using more and more recycled paper in product packaging. While using recycled paper can be an important step in reducing emissions, this typically only accounts for consumer packaging. What about upstream packaging? For shipping of bulk product, or packaging raw materials used during manufacturing? And going even further, what about the paper used in the company’s office? Or by the company’s suppliers?
Emissions During Manufacturing
Biofuels are a challenging issue as well. There are many types of biofuel product available. Many of them, however, require a substantial amount of fossil fuels to produce, reducing or eliminating any environmental benefit. It is critical to consider the supply chain requirements of any product in order to truly assess its environmental impact.
Another example: Many cosmetics companies are now offering products free of toxins. While most have prevented these toxic substances from being directly included in the products, these claims say nothing about the toxins emitted during the production process — from electricity generation, from agricultural production, or from other manufacturing processes. End consumers may be protected from certain toxins, but other toxic releases have a direct impact on the health of the local workers and communities.
So, products With ‘zero emissions’ — myth or not?
There are tremendous opportunities for companies to create value by examining so-called life-cycle impacts. As the market for sustainable products continues to expand, and as companies invest more and more in reducing sustainability impacts, it is critical that companies and consumers consider entire supply chains, not just products.