Tracing the carbon in your beer, jacket, shoes, and soap

Written by adam


Here’s a pop quiz, based on a recent Wall Street Journal article on the carbon footprint of various household goods. For each of the following products, guess their single biggest contribution to global warming. Consider all aspects of the product: raw materials, manufacturing, transportation, and end use. For example, one of the products examined is the Toyota Prius. Raw materials like steel, energy used in manufacturing, and transportation to dealerships are all responsible for a lot of emissions, but the biggest impact by far is — not surprisingly — the gasoline used to make it go.

Here are the other five products:

* **Timberland hiking boots.** Manufactured in China and sold in the U.S.
* **Laundry detergent.** Surprisingly, liquid detergent has a slightly smaller footprint than powdered.
* **Patagonia fleece jacket.** Also made in China and sold in the U.S.
* **Milk**. Fresh foods require an energy-intensive refrigerated supply chain to prevent spoilage.
* **Six pack of beer.** This fancy microbrew is made domestically, packaged in glass bottles, and delivered by truck.

OK, here are the answers:

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  1. Karen

    I’m not so sure about these numbers. For example, I think Patagonia uses recycled plastic for their fleece products. Timberland uses biodiesel for their trucks and solar panels on their manufacturing plants, so that offsets some of the ghg from cows, I would think. This article is well intended, but a bit misleading.

  2. Peter

    Biodiesel for carbon reduction?? I don’t think so once you factor in the huge amount of energy expended in growing the corn, transportation, infrastructure, etc. Then there’s the effect of higher food prices due to the increased market for corn.
    If we can get biofuel from switchgrass in a large enough quantity soon, that will help.

  3. Mark

    Great article! Just thought I’d point out a typo… in the third paragraph from the bottom, it should be “…so its importance can

  4. Adam Stein

    Karen — the carbon footprint analyses for both Patagonia and Timberland come from the companies themselves. Patagonia uses recycled polyester for some items, but not for the jacket in question. And rather than offset the GHGs from cows, the use of solar panels would actually increase the cows’ relative proportion of the total carbon footprint. Check out the original article — it’s got a lot of interesting details.
    Mark — fixed the typo.

  5. Ted O'Neill

    I brew my own beer and reuse the (non-screwcap) bottles over and over again. I am stilling using bottles that are cleaned) that I have been reusing for over 10 years now. No in-store refridgeration here to store and most are not kept in the fridge until they need some cooling before drinking. I highly recommend brewing your own, not carbon free, but not wasteful for bottles and a fun hobby (for me at least).

  6. Sheryl Gerety

    It would be helpful to have comparisons: polyester to wool would be the equivalent in performance. Cow’s milk to soy? What equivalent material replaces leather for boots and what is its Carbon print? In order for the market (externalized costs included) to work we need better info.

  7. William Greene

    I second Sheryl’s call for a comparison article, especially between soymilk and cows milk. Is soymilk really more eco-friendly when you consider the rain forests being cut down right now to feed the world’s demand for soy products? Also cow’s milk is almost always locally harvested while soy must travel from middle America (or Brazil).

  8. Adam Stein

    Soy milk is going to have a much smaller environmental impact than cow’s milk. Cows emit lots and lots of methane. Cows also require a lot of feed, which puts pressure on rainforests in exactly the same way that human consumption does. And transportation emissions don’t add up too much in comparison to emissions from cows themselves.
    More generally, these types of comparisons are usually quite difficult to do. The benefit of carbon pricing is that such comparisons become less necessary.

  9. Bryan

    I appreciate these types of analyses, but they stop at the retail location. How about figuring or at least considering the carbon footprint to one’s house. If you have to drive 10 miles roundtrip to the store that sells organic milk but only two miles to the local MegaMart for “commercial” milk, you’ve probably eliminating any carbon benefit.
    Obviously, the ideal situation is to have the MegaMart stock organic milk (and beef, chicken, fruits and vegetables, etc.).
    It’s probably less of an issue for clothing, with the high carbon footprint for synthetic fibers, but I suspect there might be a situation where the availability of a lower-carbon garment is foiled by the need to ship the item to one’s house or to drive to the nearest EMS, REI, etc.

  10. Bill

    Regarding Post #2 bio-diesel doesn’t usually come from Corn (although it can), but other vegetable oils. I think the poster was thinking about Alcohol fuels, which have a much higher carbon footprint than bio-diesel, in some analysis up to double the footprint for corn alcohol compared to bio-diesel. There has been some effect of food prices for bio-diesel, but not as much as for corn based fuel alcohol. One downside for some bio-diesel is that it is made from tropical oils whose production comes from land cleared just for this purpose and is transported long distances using fossil fuels. Carbon footprint for these fuels is definitely not a complex subject.

  11. William Greene

    Ok, thanks Adam, I’ll keep drinking soymilk and rice-milk!

  12. Sandy

    Just like to point out to posters who have written that soy crop cultivation is leading to Amazon deforestation.
    I believe in virtually aLL cases, forests are cut down for soy at the behest of the meat and dairy industry. The soy thus cultivated is used as cattle feed.
    If I am not wrong, more than half the grain we produce in this world goes to feed the animals which we then eat as meat. Highly inefficient.
    Adam, there is one point I cannot yet comprehend. What do you mean when you say “One of the reasons that putting a price on carbon remains an important policy goal is that it

  13. Adam Stein

    Sandy — carbon prices don’t get fixed by anyone. They’re levied at the point of energy consumption, and they show up in the price of goods that way. In other words, putting a price on carbon makes things like fuel and electricity more expensive. Then things that use lots of fuel and electricity become comparatively more expensive than things that don’t. No complicated analyses are required. The carbon just shows up in the product’s price.

  14. Sandy

    Ok … i get it now. But how is “putting a price on carbon” done? In other words, who decides, and how – how much cheaper should solar power be compared to coal?
    Is it done through carbon cap auctions like the one you wrote about a couple of weeks ago? (In which case, I guess the “price” of pollution that the plant spends on purchasing credits are transferred to the consumer that buys the “dirty” product anyway)

  15. Adam Stein

    You’ve got the right idea. Broadly, the two main policy tools for putting a price on carbon are 1) a carbon tax or 2) a cap-and-trade system. There are dozens of flavors of each, and in the U.S. we can expect to see several different regional cap-and-trade systems coming online over the next few years.

  16. William Greene

    Adam, which policy is more effective in your opinion? Republicans seem to favor the carbon tax over cap-trade.

  17. Adam Stein

    I’m fairly indifferent, actually. Each has theoretical strengths and weaknesses. The effectiveness of each is highly dependent on implementation details. And only one (cap-and-trade) has a decent chance of actually becoming law in the U.S. So the debate is interesting but sort of moot.
    I wouldn’t say that Republicans favor a tax. Economists do seem to favor a tax, but certainly not unanimously (and the majority of economists are Democrats, so this isn’t really a partisan thing).
    If I were the Carbon Czar, I would probably implement something along the lines of Peter Barnes’ cap-and-dividend idea, and pair it with a whole bunch of efficiency programs. Sadly, I’m not the Carbon Czar.