The Green Tau: issue 17

17th September 2021

The Carbon Footprint of Things

Over the last few weeks Green Tau has looked at various aspects of our

 The Carbon Trust has a carbon footprint labelling scheme which it is hoped will grow in popularity

individual/ household carbon footprint and how we might reduce it as part of the overall global target of achieving net zero by 2050. 

The things we buy all have their own carbon footprint, whether that’s a pair of socks or a new car or a newspaper. The carbon footprint of things includes growing or producing the raw materials, be that iron, cotton, timber etc. Then there is the processing of those materials – turning iron into steel, spinning the cotton into yarn, timber into paper. And a further series of processes will transform those elements into the final product. Then there is the carbon footprint involved in transportation between the various stages of production and onwards to the warehouse and shop. 

It is a complex chain with lots of variables which may explain why it is hard, as consumers, to establish the carbon footprint of most consumer goods. But here are a few:-

  • A newspaper 0.3 – 0.8kg CO2
  • A pair of poly cotton pants (underwear) 0.6kg CO2
  • A paperback book 1 kg CO2
  • A cotton T shirt 2-3 kg CO2
  • A pair of trainers 10-15 kg CO2
  • A  pair of jeans 20 kg CO2
  • A smart phone 55 kg CO2
  • A lap top 119 kg CO2
  • A land rover 35 tonnes CO2

Can we reduce our carbon footprint when buying things? Yes. 

We can do some research and find out which products might have a lower carbon footprint. For example organic cotton has a lower footprint than non organic cotton because it doesn’t use pesticides and fertilisers. Polyester items have double the carbon footprint of cotton ones, but  some polyester fabrics are made from recycled plastic which is better than that made from oil. Synthetic fabrics such as viscose and rayon are made from cellulose  – eg from wood or bamboo – but require a high chemical input which adds to their carbon footprint. Tencel on the other hand uses a process with a much smaller footprint.

We can consider the life span of the product. A lap top that only lasts 2 years is less environmentally friendly than one with a lifespan of 10 years as the initial carbon cost is spread over 10 rather than 2 years. We might at this point also consider how easily the product can be repaired. Some laptops are more readily repairable. Maybe the product is something we can repair ourselves such as darning a pair of socks or replacing a zip on a pair of trousers. 

We can consider the running costs involved with the product. How much energy will it take to recharge different smart phones? How much energy will different flat screen TVs use? What about buying a hand powered alternative such as hand turned coffee grinder or a manual whisk? 

We might consider whether the product has an after life – ie can we pass on to someone else when we have finished with it? Books we have read can be passed onto a friend and donated to a charity shop. The same is true of clothes. Children’s clothes can be passed onto a younger sibling, or you might hold a ‘swishing event’ with friends. 

We should also consider how the product will be recycled at the end of its life. Some clothes manufacturers and retailers will take back old clothes and recycle them. This is easier when the fabric is from a single rather than a blend of materials. Newspaper and books can ultimately be recycled with other paper products. Electrical goods are currently less readily recycled.

Alternatively we could borrow, rent or buy second hand.  Equally we should consider whether we need the thing anyway! If we are to achieve net zero as a world, I am sure it means we will have to consume less, repairing and reusing what we do have. 

Author: Judith Russenberger

Environmentalist and theologian, with husband and three grown up children plus one cat, living in London SW14. I enjoy running and drinking coffee - ideally with a friend or a book.

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