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  • Writer's pictureKatie Gardner

Carbon footprints and Sustainability

Updated: Mar 9, 2021

Hey y'all, and Happy New Year!

Since I started working on this blog and Instagram, my conversations with friends about sustainability have increased exponentially. I have always talked a lot about climate change and politics (the latter is hard to avoid right now), but this recent sustainability at home discussion development has allowed me to have fun and educational conversations with friends, family, and former coworkers. It has also allowed me to re-connect with people who I didn’t realize were so passionate about the subject. Thank you to everyone who has read the blog, and I look forward to many more of these conversations as they genuinely make my day as well as giving me new ideas to research and products to check out!

To kick off the new year, I will start addressing a common question I receive, particularly from my skeptical and analytical friends (of which I have many, being from an engineering, legal, and MBA background): “How do you compare plastic waste from single use, or even refillable, plastic bottles with a potentially increased carbon footprint from buying reusable non-plastic items online and having them shipped to you?”

This sentiment behind this question can be boiled down to the following:

How do you compare plastic waste to a carbon footprint, what is more important, and how should I make decisions when weighing products?

This question initially arose when I switched our household from single-use plastic hand soaps (or from re-using a bottle but buying large plastic containers of refills) to a “forever” glass bottle with refillable soap tablets (Blueland, for those who are curious). Aside from the long term economic benefits, I was immediately sold on the reduction in plastic waste (though also overwhelmed when I realized how many plastic bottles we consume generally, even from relatively conscious sellers like Whole Foods). However, not everyone was as convinced as I was on the benefits. The lawyer answer I tend to default to (the classic “well, it depends”) is true but entirely unhelpful. As a result, I decided to finally gather the facts so I could reply with confidence.

When I started thinking about this question, however, I realized that it was a massive question that needed to be broken down into several smaller questions as so many underlying sustainability issues are involved in properly providing an answer. These question include:

  • What is a carbon footprint?

  • What defines carbon footprints vs. being more sustainable?

  • What is a “Life Cycle Analysis,” and how else is sustainability measured?

  • How bad is plastic anyway, and why is it important to reduce it?

  • How bad is shipping for the environment, what can you do about it, and is it better to buy in a store or online?

  • Finally, what is better: reducing your carbon footprint vs. reducing plastic?

I plan to answer all of these questions and will write a series of posts to provide thorough answers. For this post, I plan to start at the beginning and answer “what is sustainability, what is a carbon footprint, and how are the two concepts connected?”

What is Sustainability?

Sustainability is complex (UCLA). The UN World Commission on Environment and Development states that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising future generations to meet their own needs.” According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “to pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations” (EPA). This means using less, from reducing energy usage to reusing materials, and ensuring what we take from the earth doesn’t mean future generations will have less opportunity.

Corporate sustainability is often broken down into three pillars: economic, environmental, and social, otherwise known as “people, planet, and profits,” or the “triple bottom line” (Investopedia). This framework is a good starting point to looking at sustainability generally, as it looks beyond the obvious environmental side and attempts to take a holistic view of impacts. All three pillars must be balanced in order for a business to be sustainable.

Environmental (Planet)

The “Environmental” pillar is most commonly thought of when the word sustainability is mentioned. This pillar includes carbon emissions, packaged waste, water use, and general environmental effects (Investopedia). When discussing environmental impacts, one major challenge is to account for the full range of impacts, some of which are known as “externalities” (a classic economics term that means a cost or benefit caused by a producer that is not incurred or received by financially the producer). Externalities are not easy to calculate, but many are trying to come up with new methods to quantify these important impacts to ensure meaningful reductions can occur.

Outside of corporate sustainability, the environmental pillar includes general greenhouse gas emissions, electricity consumption, fossil fuels, solid and hazardous waste management, toxins, air pollution, landfill, water use, and conservation, among other items (Medium Post).

Social (People)

The “Social” pillar is often called the social license to operate. This takes into account the consent and support of employees, the community, and stakeholders. Essentially, this is being a good neighbor and an active member of both the global and local communities (Investopedia).

The social pillar includes treating employees well, investing in diversity and inclusion, and giving better benefits. It requires community engagement, meaning working with local communities to ensure business practices are harmonious as well as supporting local nonprofits and organizations. Finally, supply chains become more transparent, with steps such as providing living wages to eliminating child labor and providing a safe workplace.

Social sustainability outside of corporate sustainability includes the unemployment rate, female labor participation, household income and poverty metrics, education rates, crime, healthcare, life expectancy, and charitable contributions (Medium Post).

Economic (Profits)

The third pillar of sustainability is the “Economic” pillar, meaning that a business is profitable. This pillar is also termed the “Corporate Governance” pillar. To survive, a business must be profitable. This pillar includes risk management, regulatory compliance, and governance. In a properly governed company, the board of directors and management are aligned not only with the shareholders but also with the community, customers, and value chain. Accounting is transparent and accurate, regular board and stockholder meetings are held, and conflicts of interest are avoided.

The economic pillar outside of corporate sustainability includes personal income, the costs of underemployment, employment distribution, revenue by sectors contributing to gross state product, and other economic factors (Medium Post).

A Fourth Pillar? Culture

The United Nations has proposed including Culture as a fourth pillar (Medium Post). This includes the physical environment, such as buildings and biodiversity, and the social environment, such as traditions and lifestyles. The United Nations Global Compact Cities Programme has proposed using a “Circle of Sustainability,” which includes culture, economics, ecology, and politics as the four pillars to measure the sustainability of a city.

Circles of Sustainability, from the UN Global Compact Cities Programme

What is a “Carbon Footprint”?

A carbon footprint is the amount of greenhouse gases (including the most common carbon dioxide and methane) generated by a set of actions (Nature Conservancy). It is measured in tons of carbon emitted.

The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, whereas the global average is 4 tons. To avoid a 2℃ temperature rise by 2050, which is still too high per most recent IPCC reports, the average global carbon footprint must drop under 2 tons.

Calculating a Carbon Footprint

Many carbon footprint calculators exist (such as the Nature Conservancy and the EPA) that can help you learn how much carbon you emit based on your domicile, travel, home use, food, and shopping habits.

Travel tends to be the single largest largest contributor, due to driving, transit, and air travel. I updated our calculation (for a household of 2 people), and we hit 40 tons carbon dioxide per year, primarily due to travel (as our home contributions are very low due to lack of heating/AC and our local energy source). We were 18% worse than average for travel due primarily to our frequent cross-country trips, though it helps we have one car (a Prius to boot). Out of curiosity, I also changed domicile, looking both at my hometown in Kentucky and my current home in Santa Monica. An estimated footprint was far higher in Kentucky, primarily due to energy generation sources (our power in Santa Monica is from 100% renewable generation provided by the Clean Power Alliance whereas Kentucky’s power is 73% from coal generation, as of 2019).

Carbon Footprint History and Criticism

The carbon footprint has a somewhat dirty history (Fast Company). According to several sources, the term “Carbon Footprint” was popularized by a deceptive 2005 campaign by an oil company to put the onus on consumers to reduce carbon emissions, relieving the companies of their responsibility (Masable). The concept was originally devised by Rees and Wackernagel in the 1990s as a part of an ecological footprint, though the carbon subset was the focus of the PR campaign.

Due to the history and reports that 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions can be linked to only 100 companies, primarily due to fossil fuel production, several scholars have argued that focusing on an individual's contributions has negligible impacts (Vox). I disagree. Despite the negative beginnings, the carbon footprint is still a useful metric to measure our individual greenhouse gas emissions to become more aware of our overall impact on the environment. It is important to be aware of issues in order to put pressure on companies to reduce the major sources of emissions, such as those from transportation and the energy sector as well as those from less obvious sources, such as cement production.

How does the carbon footprint fit into sustainability generally?

The carbon footprint fits into the “Environmental” pillar of the triple bottom line and sustainability definition. As a result, reducing your carbon footprint is a part of living a more sustainable life, though is only a subset of being more sustainable, despite the fact that it gets a lot of attention. It remains a useful indicator of sustainability, especially as it can be concretely measured and is impactful for fighting climate change (Research).

Sustainability Chart, created by Kathryn Gardner

Up Next: Measuring Sustainability

This post ended up twice as long as I meant it to be, with so much to discuss here. In my next few posts, I will discuss how sustainability is measured and sustainable certifications.

Thanks all, and I look forward to many more discussions on these topics!

Sustainably Yours, LA


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