Without a doubt, one of the most pressing environmental issues today is climate change. With the release of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, the issue moved into the mainstream. Many local and state governments and companies are enacting policies designed to reduce their impact on climate change. In the building industry, the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) has emphasized the need to combat climate change. In 2009, the organization revised its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system and added more credits to the categories addressing energy efficiency, renewable energy and carbon emission reductions.
But outside of energy efficiency strategies for buildings, how can architects and designers reduce the impact their projects have on climate change? One way is to look at the carbon footprint of products being specified for a project. While this data is still not readily available for most products, more and more manufacturers are recognizing the need to measure the carbon footprint of their products; some are even disclosing this information to their customers.
In short, the carbon footprint of a product represents the total amount of carbon emissions produced throughout the entire life-cycle of the product, as measured by a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). LCA is a holistic approach to quantifying the carbon footprint of a product because it takes into account every stage in the product’s life-cycle, including the carbon emissions produced during the extraction and manufacturing of raw materials, the manufacturing of the product itself, the use of the product and its end-of-life disposition.
Measuring the carbon footprint of a product is important for a
number of reasons. Most importantly, it’s a way for manufacturers to identify which processes and materials contribute to the carbon footprint. Using this information, manufacturers can then develop strategies to reduce the impact of those processes or materials. For example, when Bentley Prince Street first started measuring the carbon footprint of our products, we learned which manufacturing processes had the highest carbon footprints. Our product development team in turn used this information to inform its design strategy and create more products that were manufactured using lower impact processes—eventually allowing us to completely eliminate our processes with the highest impact. We also found that raw material extrusion and manufacturing represented the majority of the carbon footprint of our products, with nylon having the largest impact. Our product development team then worked to reduce the amount of nylon used in new products.
For buyers and specifiers, understanding the carbon footprint of a product leads to more informed decisions when choosing green products. One does not even have to know the carbon footprint of each specific product being considered if they understand the carbon footprint of the product category in general. For example, if a designer is choosing a wall fabric and knows that certain types of dyeing processes have higher carbon footprints than others, he or she can choose products made using the lower impact dyeing process. Likewise, when selecting a flat screen TV, if a buyer knows that the use phase has the highest carbon footprint in the total product lifecycle, he or she can choose the most energy efficient TV available.
Of course, it’s preferable to know the carbon footprint of each specific product in order to make the most well-informed decisions possible. The important thing to remember when comparing the carbon footprints of different products is that in order to get a truly “apples-to-apples” comparison, the measurements must be standardized and third-party verified. LCA results depend greatly on the quality of the data available and the boundaries of the assessment. For example, one manufacturer might include the transportation
of the product in its assessment while another does not. Unless there are standardized guidelines with respect to how the assessment is conducted, carbon footprint values cannot be accurately evaluated by the specifier or consumer.
The solution? Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), environmental labels containing the third-party verified and standardized LCA impacts of a product, including its carbon footprint. In much the same way that nutrition
labels allow for a comparison of the number of calories, grams of fat and grams of carbohydrates in different food products, EPDs allow one to compare the environmental impact of different products, including their carbon footprint. Specifiers can use this information not only to choose products with the lowest environmental footprint but also to measure the carbon footprint of the entire project. As more manufacturers publish standardized, third-party verified carbon footprints using EPDs, buyers and specifiers will have more information to make better decisions and understand the carbon footprint of their project as a whole.
Kimbrely Matsoukas is the Sustainability Manager at Bentley Prince Street and a LEED Accredited Professional. She manages the company’s programs on internal
waste elimination, end-of-life reclamation and climate-neutral products. Matsoukas also speaks on a variety of sustainability topics to trade associations, nonprofits, corporate and academic groups, including LEED certification with the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), energy efficiency and sustainable living.