The evolution of product carbon footprinting

The origin of product carbon footprinting

Product carbon footprinting allows organisations to identify hidden production or supply chain inefficiencies, or carbon-intensive hotspots where new processes and technologies can be applied. It can highlight risk, and help provide an accurate basis for management decisions and investment. It drives change and raises standards.

But product carbon footprinting is not easy. It originated from the commercialisation of the relatively new academic discipline of life cycle assessment (LCA). Getting a suitably accurate number requires a good understanding of the emissions in all the parts of that life cycle, typically either from raw materials to the factory gate (cradle to gate) or all the way to eventual disposal (cradle to grave). Even apparently simple products, like milk or paving slabs, can have a tremendous variety of factors involved, requiring access to expert knowledge and high levels of information management. For smaller companies or products that are not widely-sold it can also be a prohibitively complex and resource intensive process in terms of time and money.

If the appropriate method is not employed the results can also be wildly wrong. If the right factors are not considered then calculated carbon footprints can be off by many orders of magnitude, undermining the ability to make a meaningful comparison. This is why just over five years ago the Carbon Trust was involved in creating the world's first standard for product carbon footprint certification. In that time over 28,000 individual stock keeping units have had the accuracy of their carbon footprint independently certified by the Carbon Trust for 178 organisations around the world, in 27 different countries and on every continent.

Carbon footprints can also be communicated to customers and consumers, which can help them to make informed choices or comparisons. It is a clear signal that a company is taking responsible action on carbon emissions, and differentiates a brand from its competitors. This can be used to help businesses to understand the carbon embedded in their supply chain, and consumers to reduce their own personal environmental impact.

The Carbon Trust's Carbon Reduction Label is now used on a huge variety of goods and services. Along the supermarket aisles it is on Kingsmill bread, Tesco milk, and Walkers crisps. It has been awarded to Dyson Airblade hand dryers in bathrooms, Marshalls paving slabs in gardens, and GrowHow fertiliser bags on farms. It is even on the back of Loomis armoured cash delivery vans showing the footprint of its cash and valuables transit service. In fact although the label was only launched in 2007, by 2010 around 90% of UK households bought a Carbon Trust labelled product.

But what has been achieved so far is just a drop in the ocean in terms of what is possible. Having an accurate understanding of emissions is the crucial first stage in reducing them. It informs strategies for carbon management, highlights areas of significant risk, and identifies where the greatest impacts can be made. Carbon footprinting and LCA are relatively young disciplines. As they have grown they have been adapted in order to help meet needs in the real world - so that they can be a more effective tool in the transformation to a low carbon economy and help deal with the challenge of climate change.

Adaptation and variation

So how have the international standards evolved to help more companies benefit from product carbon footprinting? As you would expect with a new market coming out of a rigorous scientific and academic discipline, when international standards were first created there was initially a lot of importance on numbers being as accurate as possible. This led to quite a narrow definition of a product, so that very similar but distinguishable items had to have individual carbon footprints produced - for example a bottle of water with a flip top or a screw cap.

This meant that organisations with a huge range of products would need to invest substantial effort and expense in order to footprint all of these. Although there were benefits in terms of corporate responsibility, enhanced reputation and identifying savings, the comparative cost and difficulty did not incentivise action. Fortunately, as more has been learnt about the practice and economics of carbon footprinting then international standards have evolved to allow for a more flexible approach.

When a company makes a decision to calculate the carbon footprints of its products there are often three key factors in play: understanding, accuracy and cost. The process needs to provide a good understanding of a product lifecycle, be accurate enough to draw meaningful conclusions, and it needs to be affordable.

By slightly decreasing the accuracy of the LCA of greenhouse gas emissions in goods or services then the cost can be massively reduced while still providing almost the same levels of meaningful understanding. Of course this means that independent, expert certification is even more crucial for building trust in carbon footprinting, so that management, suppliers and customers are able to rely on it to make decisions.

In order to make product carbon footprinting a more appealing commercial proposition, two new types of certification are currently being piloted by the Carbon Trust. One allows a single footprint to be given to similar (but not identical) stock keeping units, such as crisps in a small or large bag, where the footprint would be given as an average, for example by weight or serving size. The other provides a wider-ranging assurance that a company's methods and process for producing carbon footprints are robust and follow best-practice, with certain items spot-checked, but not checking every individual footprint.

The numbers necessarily won't be quite as accurate as with a rigorous assessment of every single individual product. But these new approaches to carbon footprinting certification will still provide a meaningful understanding. An understanding that can be used for comparisons and that will be of the right orders of magnitude.

Most importantly, by overcoming cost and complexity barriers it makes calculating and certifying multiple product carbon footprints against recognised standards quicker, easier and cheaper. This will hopefully significantly increase the adoption of standards across whole industries, enabling competition and co-operation to drive down carbon footprints.

At the Carbon Trust we hope that by evolving the concept of product carbon footprinting we can accelerate the move to a sustainable, low carbon economy. Because in a low carbon economy the most sustainable products will thrive, and those that lag behind will struggle to survive.

Product Carbon Footrprint Label