Even conventional grocery stores are full of products that claim to be “green,” “carbon neutral,” “eco-friendly,” or the big one—“natural.” But as environmentally friendly labels have proliferated, the meaning of those claims has become increasingly vague. Now some large companies are trying to better define such terms to create something like the environmental equivalent of standard nutritional information. There’s no evidence, however, that more environmental information will get consumers to change their buying habits.
Walmart, DuPont, and General Electric, among other companies, have joined international consortiums that aim to develop a single metric for measuring carbon dioxide emissions associated with a product. They hope that if there’s a single up-front method, it will be easier to distinguish companies that make substantial environmental strides from those with merely a green spin. “If we have a competitor out there making claims, and we’re making claims, we really want to make sure that there’s a standard,” says Robert ter Kuile, senior manager of energy and climate change with PepsiCo International.
The Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative and the Sustainability Consortium both aim to create international standards to tabulate the carbon footprint of a variety of products. Both projects assert that the best approach is the so-called “cradle-to-grave” life-cycle assessment—a review of greenhouse gases emitted from the first step of producing raw materials to the product’s degradation in a landfill.
Levi Strauss sent its iconic 501 jeans through several life-cycle analyses, including the one developed for the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Initiative. “We were able to see that most of our impact came from consumer use [washing and drying], and from cotton production,” says Barruch Ben-Zekry, an environmental sustainability specialist at the company.
A so-called cradle-to-grave analysis showed that consumer use was the largest contributor to carbon emissions associated with 501 jeans. Credit: Levi Strauss
Levi Strauss couldn’t directly control how consumers washed their jeans and when. But the life-cycle analysis inspired a new brand this January: the Waterless line of Levi’s, which achieve the same “worn” look of other jeans but require 28 percent to 96 percent less water in manufacturing, depending on the style.
A study by Levi Strauss showed that air-drying jeans can cut carbon emissions over their life cycle by 90 percent. Credit: Levi Strauss
Motorola is another company that made changes on the basis of a life-cycle assessment, which revealed that it would take new materials to significantly reduce the carbon emissions associated with its mobile phones. “Eighty-eight percent of the [phone’s] carbon footprint resides in the manufacture of materials,” says Bill Olson, director of the office of sustainability and stewardship at Motorola. So the company spent four years developing a light, tough plastic based on materials recycled from water bottles. Olson says the material’s carbon footprint is 20 percent smaller than that of standard plastic.