by Bob Leonard
While working on “Moving to a Finite Earth Economy”, my co-author, David Houle, asked me to research how much CO2 was emitted to serve one Filet-o-Fish sandwich at a McDonald’s storefront. I thought it was an interesting exercise and I dove in. I found that it wasn’t possible. That information didn’t exist. I found plenty of data around the dollar cost of putting the fishing boats out to sea, paying the fishermen for their labor, processing and freezing the fish, transporting the frozen fish to the storefront, and finally, the cost of frying and serving the sandwich. But nothing on the carbon emitted. And nowhere in the equation is there an accounting for the value of the fish itself. In our economic system, Nature provides the fish for free.
That was a year ago and things have changed. Powerful emerging technologies are rapidly being deployed around the world to better measure and understand what is happening with our climate, and forecast what we can expect on our land masses, in the oceans and in the atmosphere. These technologies are transforming business and society as they enable much better analysis of how Earth is responding to the way humankind lives on it.
These technologies include satellite imaging capable of discerning different gases in the atmosphere, terrestrial sensors, big data and the internet of things (IoT) which enable quantifying CO2 emissions along supply chains and in manufacturing processes.
These technologies are helping enormously in the fundamental shift from Growth Economies to Finite Earth Economies. That Filet-o-Fish sandwich can now be measured for its carbon footprint. If it can be measured, it can be monitored and analyzed.
A handful of companies have experimented with labeling the carbon content of their products, but it hasn’t really caught on until now. 2020 marks the start of an era of carbon transparency. The availability of data is much better than it was just a short time ago. The technologies described above are cheaper and more readily available. They will soon be ubiquitous. Now, many companies across the supply chain are reporting their own CO2 emissions. There’s much better secondary data and generic data. Consumers are more aware of climate crisis causes and effects.
Carbon labeling – the idea that labels should not just tell us what a product contains, but what it cost the planet to manufacture – is gaining momentum. Calculating carbon footprints is intricate work. To reach its zero emissions goal, consumer packaged goods giant Unilever is using satellite monitoring, geolocation tracking and blockchain among other digital technologies to increase traceability and transparency within its supply chain.
Logitech CEO Bracken Darrell recently called carbon “the new calorie” after the electronics maker implemented a CO2 label on all of its packaging. Logitech is just one of many food and consumer goods producers to begin publishing their product lifecycle emissions.
The toughest challenge is convincing companies to adopt carbon labels. While climate-friendly companies are keen to sign up to certification programs – they already have a good sustainability story to tell – getting the largest polluters to publish their impact is more difficult. Although many consumers want carbon labels, labels don’t necessarily translate to increased sales. The carbon footprint of what we buy is often far greater than we think. Faced with that information in the aisle, people may reconsider their purchase. Which is a good thing – it results in less product consumed, and less extraction from the finite resources on Spaceship Earth.
Jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss estimates that a pair of its iconic 501 jeans produce the equivalent of 33.4kg of carbon dioxide across the entire lifespan of the pants. Just over a third of those emissions come from production of the denim (growing the cotton, transporting the cotton, processing the cotton into fabric), while another 8% is from cutting, sewing and finishing the jeans. Packaging, transport and retail accounts for 16% of the emissions, while the remaining 40% is from consumer use (mainly from washing the jeans).
When consumers become aware of how much CO2 is emitted to produce their Filet-o-Fish sandwich or their pair of blue jeans, they think twice. This is resulting in an organic phenomenon called “degrowth”. It’s in its infancy now, but will take hold as the ravages of severe weather, sea level rise, wildfires, droughts and floods become more apparent. Just as social pressure and the fear of contagion have caused most of us to wear masks when leaving our homes, social pressure and a fear of the consequences of our climate crisis will cause us to become hyper-aware of our carbon footprints and to be more discerning about our purchases.
Degrowth is a slowdown in economic sectors that emit large amounts of carbon dioxide. Those sectors will scale down until the broader economy meets sustainable emissions levels (advancing long-term health and environmental goals along the way). Degrowth entails a purposeful contraction of high-emitting industrial sectors while growing other economic sectors that produce low or zero emissions.
Again – a good thing. Those who liken our pandemic-induced economic crisis to degrowth are being deliberately obtuse. It’s like comparing a car wreck to carefully tapping the brakes. Knowing how to slow down safely is useful when it comes to avoiding collisions.
Companies see the competitive advantage of labels, and they are realizing they must genuinely do things differently. Carbon labels help people to consume less and the resulting benefits to all inhabitants of Spaceship Earth are tangible and essential.