Quantifying Environmental Impact

In today’s economy, very few manufacturers factor the environmental cost of a product or service into the retail price. If you were to factor in the environmental impact of a product’s entire lifecycle (from early design to withdraw from marketing), without forgetting cost associated with carbon neutral recycling, computers would not be $499, flat screen TVs would not be $799 and SUVs would not be $35,000. Products manufactured in the Far East would probably be far less competitive and the overall product design would be significantly different, using different raw materials for different attributes than landed cost. 

The question is what unit of measure should be used to quantify the cost of a good including the environmental impact or the benefit from one product versus another? Monetary cost (in dollars) is one way. You can account for all of the cost involved. Another way to assess total cost is through energy costs (in kilowatts); energy to harvest, produce, manufacture, distribute, use and dispose. 

Both schools of thought are relatively new. As of yet, there are no set standards for valuating and converting environmental impact to a unit of measure. The process is also quite complex, often the work of universities or environmental specialists. Some factors like cubic footage and transportation cost of various products are easy to quantify, but energy value of a pallet in a warehouse, boxes in a high rise building or quantifying the environmental impact of a disposed product in a landfill are more challenging.

Whatever becomes the reference and the exact quantification, it is obvious that using less material, less energy to produce and less fossil fuel to ship a product is key to reducing its lifecycle carbon footprint.

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