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Tracing the carbon in your beer, jacket, shoes, and soap
Adam Stein, 15 Oct 08

For household products, carbon hides in some unexpected places.


Here’s a pop quiz, based on a recent Wall Street Journal article on the carbon footprint of various household goods. For each of the following products, guess their single biggest contribution to global warming. Consider all aspects of the product: raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, and end use. For example, one of the products examined is the Toyota Prius. Raw materials like steel, energy used in manufacturing, and transportation to dealerships are all responsible for a lot of emissions, but the biggest impact by far is — not surprisingly — the gasoline used to make it go.

Here are the other five products:

  • Timberland hiking boots. Manufactured in China and sold in the U.S.
  • Laundry detergent. Surprisingly, liquid detergent has a slightly smaller footprint than powdered.
  • Patagonia fleece jacket. Also made in China and sold in the U.S.
  • Milk. Fresh foods require an energy-intensive refrigerated supply chain to prevent spoilage.

  • Six pack of beer. This fancy microbrew is made domestically, packaged in glass bottles, and delivered by truck.

OK, here are the answers:

  • For the hiking boots, the chief culprit isn’t shipping. It’s leather. Cows are a huge source of methane emissions.
  • The manufacturing impact of laundry detergent is overshadowed by the energy demands of your washing machine. Use cold water and line dry if you want to green your cleaning.

  • For the fleece jacket, raw inputs dominate. Polyester, a petroleum product, accounts for about 71% of the item’s carbon footprint. The trip from China to the U.S. accounts for only 1%.

  • For milk, the problem is, once again, cows. By themselves, cows are responsible for about 28% of milk’s carbon footprint. If you add in their feed, that figure goes up to 51%, more than the impact of packaging, processing, and transportation combined.

  • For beer, the biggest culprit is in-store refrigeration. Glass for the bottles is a close second.

There isn’t a huge takeaway here. Calculating carbon emissions is complicated business, and it turns out that environmental impacts are spread widely throughout our integrated economy, often hiding in unexpected places. One of the reasons that putting a price on carbon remains an important policy goal is that it’s otherwise quite hard to know what part of the problem to attack. When carbon carries a price, the issue suddenly becomes a lot more tractable.

Otherwise, a few points do jump out from the analysis.

The first is that transportation costs just aren’t the biggest impact for most products. Patagonia could manufacture their jackets in the basement of their stores, and they would barely make a dent in their footprint. In aggregate, of course, transportation makes up a huge percentage of the world’s carbon budget, so its importance can’t be discounted. But buying local still doesn’t seem like the best lever for consumers looking to green their lifestyles.

The second is that products that consume energy in their end use tend to be wildly more environmentally harmful after they get into consumers hands than during manufacturing. In other words, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint, consider driving less.

The third is that cows remain a really big problem without an obvious solution. Methane digester projects like the ones that TerraPass funds help to decrease the impacts of agriculture, but as individuals the best lever we have is to reduce our consumption.

Adam Stein is a co-founder of TerraPass, where this post originally appeared. He writes on issues related to carbon, climate change, policy, and conservation.

Image by John Weber/WSJ.

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So often as consumers we neglect to consider the impact of the products we buy. Your post is eye-opening and I'd like to reference it in our new Blog, scheduled to launch at the end of this month. Good work Adam!

Posted by: Kim Robertella on 17 Oct 08

Interesting. So would I help by buying beer warm and fridging at home, or does that just wash my hands of the problem? What about making beer at home? (while I enjoy doing so, I doubt that I can do it as efficiently as even a microbrew company).

The Prius numbers are interesting, but appear in a vacuum. So the Prius' carbon footprint is 97,000 pounds. How does that compare to buying a larger or non-hybrid car (not even a massive SUV), or to NOT having them build me a new Prius and keeping my small-but-conventional-drivetrain VW instead? What percentage of that is manufacture vs. use and how would that compare to the carbon footprint to build and run a Tesla or other electric car (assuming the electricity for the Tesla is generated by fossil-fuel plants)?

Posted by: David Cain on 20 Oct 08

From what i understood, Patagonia uses recycled polyester. Does that change its footprint any?

Posted by: Michael Riha on 30 Oct 08

They use recycled polyester for some of their jackets, and yes, it makes a big difference. They don't use it in the jacket featured in the article though.

David -- there's no really quick answer to your question. The Tesla's carbon footprint depends on where in the country you live, although it will certainly be better than a gasoline-driven car. (Also, the question of Tesla's footprint is moot, because they're too expensive to replace conventional cars.) The Prius' carbon footprint can be compared to other cars by looking at their typical mpg, with all the standard caveats that apply.

Posted by: Adam Stein on 30 Oct 08


It seems to me that your statement,"But buying local still doesn’t seem like the best lever for consumers looking to green their lifestyles", points out one of the fundamental problems with the current "green" revolution, that being that we can somehow buy our way out of our the mess we are creating by purchasing "green" products. The reality is that the idea of buying or consuming is what got us into this mess in the first place.

Buying local compared to buying imports has much bigger implications than simply how much carbon is emitted as a result of my purchase. Truely local economies are economies that force consumers and producers to take responsibility for the impacts of their decisions. If I live in a community where the resources that make up the products I use or make come from, I am forced to live with the consequences of the results of using up the resources or emitting the wastes has on the local community.

The bigger question should be not how much carbon is released as a result of my purchase, but do I really need the product in the first place. Your closing statement points that out, "as individuals the best lever we have is to reduce our consumption."

Just some thoughts.


Posted by: Tom Jablonski on 30 Oct 08



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