Picture this: you’re in a department store, shopping for a new pair of jeans. You’ve found two pairs you like, from two different brands, and they are about the same price. But along with the price tag, a second label shows one pair generated 39 pounds of carbon dioxide-equivalent emissions, while the other was responsible for just 29 pounds.
Which would you choose?
According to the developers of a new carbon footprint calculator, that’s the sort of decision consumers should be empowered to make for every purchase. The 2030 Calculator aims to give manufacturers a way to calculate, free of charge, a carbon footprint for every product they sell.
“What we wanted to do is for people to be able to see on their receipt the carbon footprint level next to the item,” says Mathias Wikström, CEO of Swedish start-up Doconomy, which develops financial products focused on sustainability. “The challenge we came across was that not many firms had their products’ carbon emissions calculated, so we decided to build a calculator for them to be able to do that.”
Wikström says there’s growing demand among enterprises for such a tool—and it’s not hard to see why. There was a time, a few scant years ago, when “eco-friendly” shopping was a niche concern, but that’s no longer the case: in the U.S., 85% of American consumers are now thinking about sustainability more than ever. In advanced economies, shoppers increasingly want their products to be sustainable, to the extent that companies with better environmental credentials attract more business. The relationship between consumer and product can be a surprisingly deep one: according to the Journal of Consumer Research, the “greenconsumption effect” of purchasing eco-friendly items can actually improve the user’s experience of that product.
This greening of consumer sentiment has arrived none too soon: the 2030 Calculator’s name comes from a recognition of the need to at least halve global carbon emissions by the end of the decade, as recognized by the European Union.
Wikström’s team started out by looking at cradle-to-gate emissions from the garment industry, which has a notoriously heavy emissions impact. According to the UN Environment Programme, clothing accounts for some 10% of global carbon emissions.
Johan Pihl, head of innovation at Doconomy, takes Forbes.com through the process for calculating the carbon footprint of one hypothetical pair of jeans, bringing the calculator up onscreen and punching values into the various fields. The calculator asks the user—typically a manufacturer—to input data about the weight of their product and its materials and packaging, as well as the location of each material supplier and manufacturing facility, the type of energy used to produce the product, and the location of the final distribution center, including the type of transport used to move the goods.
It seems quite a lot of detailed information for one product, and at first it appears somewhat daunting. But the more information given, Pihl explains, the more accurate the final calculation will be.
It also means that the calculator can help account for a firm’s scope 3 carbon emissions. Also described as value chain emissions, these are generated by sources not directly under the control of the company in question—yet scope 3 often accounts for the majority of emissions produced by business and industry.
Having all those data yields immediate results: at one point in the demonstration, a copper zipper is added to the equation for the hypothetical pair of jeans, causing the emissions total on the screen to leap by several hundred grams. It’s a real-time illustration of how every aspect of a garment can make big difference to its environmental impact.
At the end of the process, the user is left with a figure in kilograms of CO2 equivalent emissions, representing the carbon impact of the product all the way up to distribution.
“We’re just at the start,” Pihl says of the project. “We want to add even more data and get more granular as well.” To do this, Doconomy is working with material suppliers and analysts to build up its own datasets—some of which must be generated from scratch.
The platform follows an existing standard for carbon footprint calculations—namely ISO European Standard 14067, published in 2018—meaning it is in line with current international guidelines on carbon reporting. And because it is open source, any manufacturer can use it to measure the impact of their products.
Emilien Hoet, head of U.K. at ClimatePartner, a sustainability consultancy that has its own carbon calculator, says the 2030 Calculator is “a very welcome initiative.”
“Carbon calculators are crucial as they help people and companies to truly understand their impact holistically and to prioritise actions in terms of their relative impact,” Hoet says. “Most companies who make physical products will find that 70-80% of their carbon footprint lies in their supply chain. Understanding the carbon footprint of your products is therefore a great step towards getting more transparency on your environmental impact.”
On the other hand, Hoet says, with carbon accounting still in its infancy, the true value of revealing the carbon impact of products has not yet been demonstrated.
“I do wonder if the market is mature enough for a complete self-service product carbon footprint offering,” Hoet says. “I’ve often heard companies who’ve completed their carbon footprint calculations say, ‘Now what? What do I do with this?’ A carbon number is pretty meaningless if you cannot compare it.”
Furthermore, Hoet explains, simply having an emissions figure for a product doesn’t tell a company what to do about it. “Understanding whether the emissions impact is good or bad, identifying areas where you can reduce it and at what cost, and how circular business models can dramatically reduce it is key,” he says.
But adoption of carbon accounting could prove organic, Wikström believes. He claims some European brands are already printing out screengrabs of the 2030 Calculator’s output to put next to their products on store shelves. And Pihl says that the more companies use the calculator, the more it could provide a standard. “If we can have a tool like this that everyone uses, that makes it possible to compare products across brands,” he says. Wikström and Pihl use the analogy of calorie counts and nutrition labels on food packaging and menus: just as these show the effect that a food can have on the human body, so a carbon label can indicate the effect a product will have on the Earth.
To Hoet’s point about carbon impact ratings effecting change at the manufacturing level, Wikström says some brands have started using carbon calculations in production planning. “They’re asking ‘how can we make more climate-smart products on the drawing board?’” he says. “Designers want to understand the impact of their choices when the product is at the blueprint stage.”
There is also the possibility of companies being compelled to publish their carbon impacts. In the EU, the European Commission is reviewing the Non-Financial Reporting Directive with a view to pushing companies to disclose more detailed sustainability information. And in the U.K., a bill specifically designed to make companies publish their supply chain carbon impact is currently being debated. The bill will receive its second reading in January, 2021.
Whether change comes through social, economic or legal pressure, Hoet believes that before long, carbon accounting will become as commonplace as financial accounting, making ways to measure carbon impact a crucial business tool.
“Financial accounting has revolutionised the way we run our companies. Can you imagine managing an organisation without a balance sheet?” he says. “Net zero commitments depend on good accounting and carbon insights. The trick now is to make it as easy as possible, so we can spend less time data gathering and analyzing, and more time taking the urgent action that the world needs.”