HomeDiscoveryNorthStar Initiative for Sustainable EnterpriseFood manufacturers not off the hook: big potential for reducing carbon footprint

Food manufacturers not off the hook: big potential for reducing carbon footprint

Companies are increasingly interested in where and how they can reduce the environmental impact of their supply chains. The focus frequently lands on agriculture, which is a large contributor to the environmental footprint of many of the products we buy. However, a recent study of the breakfast cereal supply chain by researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment found that manufacturers can have a far greater ability than farmers to reduce the carbon footprint of food. The study, carried out by IonE’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, found that manufacturing has more than six times the ability of agriculture to reduce the carbon footprint of corn cereal products and nearly three times the ability for wheat cereal products.

“Many companies that have agriculture as a component of their supply chains are under the impression that, because agriculture is a ‘hot spot’ for carbon production and other environmental impacts in their supply chains, they are off the hook to improve their own operations,” said study co-author Rylie Pelton, a doctoral student in the U’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences. “We found that they themselves are actually in the best position to reduce the carbon footprint of their products.”

The study also illuminated the importance of measuring and comparing the environmental impact of product environmental claims, finding that some are much more effective than others at reducing impact, and some even increase impact relative to the conventional product in certain areas. “It is important to recognize that there are often trade-offs in environmental impact when comparing eco-improvement options,” said NiSE director and CFANS associate professor Tim Smith. “While the study found that eco-attributes in agriculture had less effect in reducing the carbon footprint than attributes implemented in manufacturing, the opposite could be true when looking at alternative impact categories such as eco-toxicity and water quality.” The study currently looks only at carbon and water impacts.

The study, published online this week in the Journal of Industrial Ecology, was based on a Hotspot Scenario Analysis, a new method of streamlined life cycle assessment developed by Pelton and Smith. HSA makes it possible to identify the points along the supply chain that are “hottest” and assess common eco-claims against a baseline conventional product to understand how effective each of the claims are at reducing the environmental footprint.

“There are many potential improvement options that are available throughout the supply chain that may but don’t necessarily improve the environmental performance — claims like energy efficiency, recycled content, organic, precision farming, biobased, recyclable, compostable,” Pelton said. “The key is identifying which options are most effective in reducing environmental impacts — and at which points along the supply chain — so that any investments and effort at improvement provide the greatest reductions in impact.” said Pelton.

The study suggests that not all improvement options are created equal. Managers seeking to improve the environmental profile of their products and supply chains would benefit from a strategic approach to investing in meeting their sustainability goals, especially if we, as a society, are to rise above these grand environmental challenges we must increasingly face.

Photo by Daniel Go.

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