Manufacturing products with ‘zero emissions’: myth or not?

As a science-based method, LCA is an excellent tool to bust the myths that surround sustainability. In this monthly series, we look at some common sustainability ideas to see if they are myth or true. In today’s episode: the drive towards zero emissions.

Consumer attention to environmental issues has helped to spur significant demand for more sustainable products, and many companies are now marketing green versions of their products. There is no doubt that the attention and efforts of companies big and small have led to substantial advances in addressing sustainability issues, such as pollution.

As the green product movement grows and matures, however, it is important to consider not only the products that we are purchasing but also what it takes to manufacture and produce those products.

When is zero actually zero?

Let’s start by looking at the so-called “zero-emission”  electric cars that are becoming more and more prevalent on the market today.  While it is true that these cars do not have any direct emissions, it is very important to understand that the emissions are generally just ‘shifted’ to the power plant supplying the electricity.

This is a clear example, so let’s look at a more complex one. Many companies are using more and more recycled paper in product packaging. While using recycled paper can be an important step in reducing emissions, this typically only accounts for consumer packaging. What about upstream packaging? For shipping of bulk product, or packaging raw materials used during manufacturing? And going even further, what about the paper used in the company’s office? Or by the company’s suppliers?

Emissions during manufacturing

Biofuels are a challenging issue as well. There are many types of biofuel products available. Many of them, however, require a substantial amount of fossil fuels to produce, reducing or eliminating any environmental benefit. It is critical to consider the supply chain requirements of any product in order to truly assess its environmental impact.

Another example: many cosmetics companies are now offering products free of toxins. While most have done a great job of removing these toxic substances from being directly included in the products, these claims say nothing about the toxins emitted during the production process – from electricity generation, from agricultural production, or from other manufacturing processes. End consumers may be protected from certain toxins, but other toxic releases have a direct impact on the health of the local workers and communities.

Manufacturing products with ‘zero emissions’: myth or not?

Status: busted.

There are tremendous opportunities for companies to create value by examining so-called life-cycle impacts. As the market for green and sustainable products continues to expand, and as companies invest more and more in reducing sustainability impacts, it is critical that companies and consumers consider supply chains, not just products.

Uncover more sustainability myths

This is the sixth part of our Sustainability Mythbusters series. See other episodes:

It’s easy to use ‘common sense’ and make assumptions in sustainability, but does that get you the results you want? If you want to learn how you can use sustainability metrics to uncover more myths for your company, contact us.

Cashion East

Cash worked for PRé as a Senior Sustainability Consultant from 2012 to 2017. His areas of expertise included sustainable return on investment, sustainable supply chain collaboration, and sustainability performance. For PRé, he lead the development of tailored sustainability software tools for the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, among many other projects in sustainable development and sustainability integration.

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