Why carbon footprint is not enough

Our consultant, Ellen Meijer, shares her view on how the carbon footprint alone does not reveal the full picture of your effect on the environment.

Climate change seems to have become today’s poster child for environmental issues like the panda bear is for species extinction. It owes its popularity partly to the media attention generated by Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, but also to the clear link of climate change with monetary costs and savings brought by the carbon market and trading of emission certificates. It is, therefore, no wonder that several industries have embraced the carbon footprint as their go-to metric.

Like the panda bear is not the only animal threatened by extinction, climate change is not the only issue of concern for our environment. There are many more issues to consider. For instance, ozone layer depletion and the resulting banning of CFCs were hot topics in the ‘90s. Our planet is a complex, interdependent system and there are many issues that affect it. Looking at only one environmental indicator does not reflect this complex reality.

Take your blinders off

The carbon footprint alone does not reveal the full picture of your effect on the environment. It could even lead to making the wrong business decisions because it shows limited information. Imagine deciding between a candy bar and a handful of nuts as a healthy afternoon snack. If you consider only the salt content and ignore the amount of saturated fat and sugar, you may not end up with the healthiest choice. Similarly, when you make a decision based on only the carbon footprint, you may not end up with the most sustainable choice.

Making a wrong decision can be risky, especially for your brand’s reputation. Consumers are becoming increasingly critical when it comes to sustainability claims. They are suffering from environmental label fatigue. Additionally, if you invest in a suboptimal choice, you risk additional costs in the future.

These risks can be minimized by using multiple indicators to assess the sustainability of your product’s value chain. Understanding and interpreting this information can be challenging, particularly when it comes to trade-offs. However, a small number of indicators usually represent the bulk of the environmental impact. These can be used as Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) to monitor and communicate your performance improvements.

When it comes to decision-making, adopting a multi-indicator approach is the most sustainable choice you can make.

Ellen Meijer

Senior Consultant

My background in industrial design made it clear to me that the current system of consumption and disposal cannot be maintained in the long run. I quickly became interested in quantifying sustainability, so that well-supported decisions can be made in our move towards a more sustainable world. LCA provides the ability to focus on the facts.

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