Updated: Mar 9, 2021
In this post, I am building on my previous explanation defining sustainability, carbon footprints, and how the two concepts relate. This series began as I wanted to get to the root of the question “How do you compare plastic waste to a carbon footprint, what is more important, and how should I make decisions when weighing products?” Well, to compare products, their impacts have to be measured. This post will focus on measuring sustainability impacts by looking at sustainable accounting, life cycle assessments, and sustainable certifications.
Measuring Sustainability Impacts
As a quick reminder, the three pillars of sustainability are environment, society, and economy, which make up the “triple bottom line.” These contain all of the various items involved in living a sustainable life and operating a sustainable business. However, as great as these pillars sound, measuring impacts and equating vastly different metrics has proven a challenge for both companies and consumers when making sustainability decisions. The triple bottom line can be used to guide organizations and individuals to become more sustainable but can leave us unsatisfied as often we want an even more simple, concrete metric.
Until recently, measuring sustainability was a challenge as there were no quantifiable metrics or standards measures. Groups such as the Sustainable Accounting Standards Board (SASB) are attempting to change this by providing concrete categories to rate company performance (SASB). Other groups include the Global Reporting Initiative, CDP, the Climate Disclosure Standards Board, and the International Integrated Reporting Council (Forbes and Columbia University).
These groups are primarily focused on developing standardized reporting categories for corporations to look at ESG metrics (environmental, social, and corporate governance, which maps onto the planet, people, and profit of the triple bottom line). Sustainability accounting looks at at company-wide performance just as financial accounting looks at a company's balance sheet. This is good for society, as mandatory and standardized reporting means transparency and accountability. Further, ESG will become more than just an initiative to appease interested parties as it potentially will become a metric on which investors make funding decisions (Forbes).
A typical sustainable accounting analysis will look at everything from environmental metrics, such as GHG emissions, air quality, waste management, toxic material management, and energy use, to social capital, which includes data security, customer privacy, and access & affordability (from SASB Materiality Matrix). These can be further split into industry specific metrics. For example, SASB’s standard for “Consumer Goods: Apparel, Accessories, & Footwear” on the Disclosure Topic of Raw Materials Sourcing includes descriptions of environmental and social risks associated with sourcing priority raw materials and the percentage of third-party certifications by an environmental or social sustainability standard (SASB Materiality Matrix).
Life Cycle Assessments
On a corporate level, sustainable accounting standards are gradually becoming effective ways to measure broad sustainability metrics. However, these are ineffective when looking at individual products. For this, investigations known as life cycle sustainability assessments are performed to look at the full impact of an individual product. This takes into account the raw materials, production, delivery, efficiency, durability, packaging, and disposal (How Stuff Works). The UN Environment Programme’s Life Cycle Initiative aims to develop methods to enable users to organize complex people, planet, and profit data into a structured format (Life Cycle Initiative).
These assessments can be complex but the LCAs provide frameworks to help facilitate decisions to make products more sustainable (check out this article from Ecochain that goes in depth into conducting an LCA). LCAs are a part of more broad sustainable accounting audits, as it helps a company know the individual effects of certain decisions.
An LCA will look at the product life cycle, from cradle to grave. Professionals who conduct these assessments will look at equivalent measures in order to compare inputs. For example, an LCA of a t-shirt could be calculated in CO2-e (or CO2 equivalency, which is a way to measure “Global Warming Potential”) or in environmental economic costs, measured in a certain currency.
Sustainability certifications are a way for the average consumer to know they are buying products that have been vetted, as it is impossible for us to conduct a life cycle assessment for every item we put in our grocery or shopping cart. These certifications are often managed by an NGO partnering with businesses to help solve problems that aren’t fixed by governmental regulation. However, not all certifications are created equal. Some have been criticized for focusing on the wrong problems and exacerbating inequalities (Ethical.Net).
Several common certifications include: Fair Trade International, World Fair Trade Organization, B Corp, LEED, TRUE, SITES, GBB, Leaping Bunny, 1% for the Planet, Carbon Neutral or Carbon Trust, Marine Stewardship Council Standards, PETA-Approved Vegan, and Rainforest Alliance. However, several of these have been criticized for being superficial or having detrimental effects, lowering working standards as compared to production without the certification.
Organic certifications include the Global Organic Textile Standard and Soil Association Organic. However, buying organic isn’t necessarily better for the climate. The emissions pictures are complicated, as organic farms may actually have more GHG emissions overall due to more land use for fewer products and more inputs such as water. The lack of pesticides does benefit biodiversity and prevents toxic runoff, and many still recommend buying organic as overall the effects are likely a net positive.
As sustainable certifications are a broad and interesting topic that can be useful to the average consumer (and I'm curious to learn more), I will expand on this topic in the future.
So, how do I know which products to buy?
Sustainable accounting and life cycle assessments are great for corporations to measure product and business sustainability, but they do not provide a simple answer for consumers desiring a simple answer to the question “which product should I buy?”
The next few blog posts will discuss this in depth, but as a preview, here are a few quick guidelines to follow in the meantime:
Check out websites such as BuyGreen.com, Ecomall.com, Greenshopper.com, and the National Green Pages, and the Green Products Alliance.
Check for reputable sustainable certifications, such as Fair Trade, B Corp, LEED, TRUE, SITES, GBB, Leaping Bunny, 1% for the Planet, Carbon Neutral or Carbon Trust, Marine Stewardship Council Standards, and Rainforest Alliance.
Look at where the product was made, where it is shipped from, and where you live: try to minimize the distance between these.
Remember that just because you’re buying a product in a store doesn’t mean the carbon footprint is necessarily lower than buying online: the product has to be manufactured, shipped to the distributor (which would have multiple steps), shipped to a store, and then driven home.
There are unfortunately no easy answers when it comes to buying sustainable products, but doing a bit of research and learning how to pick out trustworthy brands will go a long way towards forcing companies to green their supply chains, doing the hard work for us.
Thank you for reading.
Katie @ Sustainably Yours, LA