Calculating the environmental impact of products can be a bewildering experience. While big companies typically outsource large-scale environmental analysis to expert consultants, small and mid-sized businesses with evolving products and smaller budgets may find it challenging to know where to start.
Fortunately, there are several freely-accessible online resources that can help. While these tools do not offer simple answers, they can get you started in the right direction to analyze how your business' products may be impacting the environment.
When we started our business, we were specifically interested in the positive impact we could make on Greenhouse Gas Emissions. Our marketplace finds buyers for unused goods that might otherwise go to long-term storage or landfill. By putting these unused goods & materials to productive use instead, we cancel the need to manufacture new ones and re-transport them from overseas. To prove our value, we needed to figure out how much emissions were involved in making and distributing our products.
3 Tools for Measuring Carbon Impact
After a bit of research, we were able to find 3 reasonably accessible tools for calculating full-lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions for various types of products that we resell.
1. The Carbon Catalog
The Carbon Catalog is an advanced data visualization that explores the Carbon impact of various products. Of the 3 tools we looked at, it's the best for comparing individual products on a detailed level. Carbon Catalog breaks things down into 3 lifecycle stages: upstream, manufacturing and downstream. This specificity is great if, like us, your carbon impact is weighted differently at each stage (our work does not impact the 'downstream' as much as the 'upstream' component). Unfortunately, this specificity comes at a cost. If the product you want to analyze does not closely match one already in the database, it can be hard to infer the data for your specific needs. The data is self-reported by manufacturers, so it can vary widely, even between very similar products.
2. The ICE Database
This is a very large Excel File that you can download and use to look up various types of (mostly) raw materials and their associated carbon costs. It's a great tool for someone doing research for larger building projects with a scientific eye toward emissions cost calculations based on the amount of materials generally used in a project. It is less helpful if you're trying to analyze individual products.
3. The 2030 Calculator
After experimenting a bit, we found this tool to be the most helpful for our needs. It allowed us to create a product, give it various attributes, and then calculate a custom set of stats about the potential emissions impact of that specific product. Using this feature, we were able to create an imaginary product representing average characteristics of the real products in our major store categories.
The Carbon Intensity Index
Each of these three tools is oriented around a statistic called Carbon Intensity Index. This index basically estimates the amount of Greenhouse Gas Emissions required to produce and distribute various types of goods and materials. The terms "Carbon" and "CO2e" (Carbon Dioxide Emissions) are used as a proxy for multiple greenhouse gases including methane. The CII is typically stated in Kilograms CO2e per Kilogram of whatever the material is being analyzed. So the CII of a cardboard packaging, for example, is comparatively low (1.89) while a laptop computer, very high (227).
Applying CII to Our Business
To analyze our Carbon Impact, we started by making a matrix of reference goods that we could use as proxies or our products in various categories. We used the 2030 Tool to calculate a CII for each product based on various ratios of components (e.g. Steel, Brass, Plastic) and associated processes (Molding, Cutting, Shaping). The tool also allowed us to estimate the manufacturing origin and destination to add a transportation component to the CII. Here are some examples from the results:
|Concrete / Ceramic Tile
|Door / Cabinet Hardware
|Ceramic Vessels (Sinks etc.)
Creating a Real-Time Climate Impact Model
As an eCommerce company, we keep track of the weight of our products in order to calculate shipping costs when items sell. Using this data, we can multiply our product weight x the CII index to get a sense of the CO2 emissions potentially saved with each transaction, based on the category of the product. In order to apply these CII factors to our goods on a real-time basis, we created a database table (we use Airtable) and associated these values to our Products database. This set-up allows us to estimate potential CO2e savings for any period, category or client. At the time of this writing, our calculation determines that the potential CO2e 'embodied' in the items that we've consigned for resale is:
252 Metric Tonnes
In addition to calculating overall CO2 savings, we can calculate and analyze various attributes of our Carbon Savings Footprint.
For example, this chart helped us understand that 'Tile & Flooring' (dark blue) is our strongest category for CO2 savings. While the category has a relatively low CII (5.3), the concrete used in these products is incredibly heavy and adds a great deal of weight. We look forward to improving our analysis as our inventory of products grows.
Measuring your business' impact on the Climate is challenging. Doing it yourself probably won't provide the scientific rigor required for critical applications, but you can generate accurate and informative data with the right tools. Hopefully this article will be helpful if you decide to do so.