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Title: Online purchasing creates opportunities to lower the life cycle carbon footprints of consumer products

Abstract

A major barrier to transitions to environmental sustainability is that consumers lack information about the full environmental footprints of their purchases. Sellers' incentives do not support reducing the footprints unless customers have such information and are willing to act on it. We explore the potential of modern information technology to lower this barrier by enabling firms to inform customers of products' environmental footprints at the point of purchase and easily offset consumers' contributions through bundled purchases of carbon offsets. Using online stated choice experiments, we evaluated the effectiveness of several inexpensive features that firms in four industries could implement with existing online user interfaces for consumers. These examples illustrate the potential for firms to lower their overall carbon footprints while improving customer satisfaction by lowering the 'soft costs' to consumers of pro-environmental choices. Lastly, opportunities such as these likely exist wherever firms possess environmentally relevant data not accessible to consumers or when transaction costs make pro-environmental action difficult.

Authors:
 [1];  [2];  [1];  [1];  [1]
  1. National Renewable Energy Lab. (NREL), Golden, CO (United States)
  2. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Washington, D.C. (United States); Norwegian Univ., of Science and Technology, Trondheim (Norway)
Publication Date:
Research Org.:
National Renewable Energy Lab. (NREL), Golden, CO (United States)
Sponsoring Org.:
NREL Laboratory Directed Research and Development (LDRD); USDOE
OSTI Identifier:
1295942
Report Number(s):
NREL/JA-6A80-65496
Journal ID: ISSN 0027-8424
Grant/Contract Number:
AC36-08GO28308
Resource Type:
Journal Article: Published Article
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Additional Journal Information:
Journal Volume: 113; Journal Issue: 35; Journal ID: ISSN 0027-8424
Publisher:
National Academy of Sciences, Washington, DC (United States)
Country of Publication:
United States
Language:
English
Subject:
29 ENERGY PLANNING, POLICY, AND ECONOMY; carbon footprint; online experiments; carbon offset; ecolabels; consumer behavior

Citation Formats

Isley, Steven C., Stern, Paul C., Carmichael, Scott P., Joseph, Karun M., and Arent, Douglas J. Online purchasing creates opportunities to lower the life cycle carbon footprints of consumer products. United States: N. p., 2016. Web. doi:10.1073/pnas.1522211113.
Isley, Steven C., Stern, Paul C., Carmichael, Scott P., Joseph, Karun M., & Arent, Douglas J. Online purchasing creates opportunities to lower the life cycle carbon footprints of consumer products. United States. doi:10.1073/pnas.1522211113.
Isley, Steven C., Stern, Paul C., Carmichael, Scott P., Joseph, Karun M., and Arent, Douglas J. 2016. "Online purchasing creates opportunities to lower the life cycle carbon footprints of consumer products". United States. doi:10.1073/pnas.1522211113.
@article{osti_1295942,
title = {Online purchasing creates opportunities to lower the life cycle carbon footprints of consumer products},
author = {Isley, Steven C. and Stern, Paul C. and Carmichael, Scott P. and Joseph, Karun M. and Arent, Douglas J.},
abstractNote = {A major barrier to transitions to environmental sustainability is that consumers lack information about the full environmental footprints of their purchases. Sellers' incentives do not support reducing the footprints unless customers have such information and are willing to act on it. We explore the potential of modern information technology to lower this barrier by enabling firms to inform customers of products' environmental footprints at the point of purchase and easily offset consumers' contributions through bundled purchases of carbon offsets. Using online stated choice experiments, we evaluated the effectiveness of several inexpensive features that firms in four industries could implement with existing online user interfaces for consumers. These examples illustrate the potential for firms to lower their overall carbon footprints while improving customer satisfaction by lowering the 'soft costs' to consumers of pro-environmental choices. Lastly, opportunities such as these likely exist wherever firms possess environmentally relevant data not accessible to consumers or when transaction costs make pro-environmental action difficult.},
doi = {10.1073/pnas.1522211113},
journal = {Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America},
number = 35,
volume = 113,
place = {United States},
year = 2016,
month = 8
}

Journal Article:
Free Publicly Available Full Text
Publisher's Version of Record at 10.1073/pnas.1522211113

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  • A major barrier to transitions to environmental sustainability is that consumers lack information about the full environmental footprints of their purchases. Sellers' incentives do not support reducing the footprints unless customers have such information and are willing to act on it. We explore the potential of modern information technology to lower this barrier by enabling firms to inform customers of products' environmental footprints at the point of purchase and easily offset consumers' contributions through bundled purchases of carbon offsets. Using online stated choice experiments, we evaluated the effectiveness of several inexpensive features that firms in four industries could implement withmore » existing online user interfaces for consumers. These examples illustrate the potential for firms to lower their overall carbon footprints while improving customer satisfaction by lowering the 'soft costs' to consumers of pro-environmental choices. Lastly, opportunities such as these likely exist wherever firms possess environmentally relevant data not accessible to consumers or when transaction costs make pro-environmental action difficult.« less
  • Consumers who wish to consider product attributes like carbon footprints in their purchasing decisions are often blocked from meaningful action by a lack of information. We conducted a single randomized controlled trial at a grocery store to evaluate the effects of providing such product attribute and carbon footprint information via augmented reality (AR) displays on bottled water and breakfast cereal, two frequently purchased goods. Using an AR smartphone app that incorporates comparative and detailed product information into personalized data and recommendations, a 23% statistically significant reduction in carbon footprint was found for bottled water, and non-significant reductions for breakfast cereal.more » Furthermore, AR informed choice lead to healthier cereal choices.« less
  • Consumers who wish to consider product attributes like carbon footprints in their purchasing decisions are often blocked from meaningful action by a lack of information. We conducted a single randomized controlled trial at a grocery store to evaluate the effects of providing such product attribute and carbon footprint information via augmented reality (AR) displays on bottled water and breakfast cereal, two frequently purchased goods. Using an AR smartphone app that incorporates comparative and detailed product information into personalized data and recommendations, a 23% statistically significant reduction in carbon footprint was found for bottled water, and non-significant reductions for breakfast cereal.more » Furthermore, AR informed choice lead to healthier cereal choices.« less
  • Explicit expressions for the end-of-life flows (EOL) of single and multiple cycle products (MCPs) are presented, including deterministic and stochastic EOL exit. The expressions are given in terms of the physical parameters (maximum lifetime, T, annual cycling frequency, f, number of cycles, N, and early discard or usage loss). EOL flows are also obtained for hi-tech products, which are rapidly renewed and thus may not attain steady state (e.g. electronic products, passenger cars). A ten-step recursive procedure for obtaining the dynamic EOL flow evolution is proposed. Applications of the EOL expressions and the ten-step procedure are given for electric householdmore » appliances, industrial machinery, tyres, vehicles and buildings, both for deterministic and stochastic EOL exit, (normal, Weibull and uniform exit distributions). The effect of the physical parameters and the stochastic characteristics on the EOL flow is investigated in the examples: it is shown that the EOL flow profile is determined primarily by the early discard dynamics; it also depends strongly on longevity and cycling frequency: higher lifetime or early discard/loss imply lower dynamic and steady state EOL flows. The stochastic exit shapes the overall EOL dynamic profile: Under symmetric EOL exit distribution, as the variance of the distribution increases (uniform to normal to deterministic) the initial EOL flow rise becomes steeper but the steady state or maximum EOL flow level is lower. The steepest EOL flow profile, featuring the highest steady state or maximum level, as well, corresponds to skew, earlier shifted EOL exit (e.g. Weibull). Since the EOL flow of returned products consists the sink of the reuse/remanufacturing cycle (sink to recycle) the results may be used in closed loop product lifecycle management operations for scheduling and sizing reverse manufacturing and for planning recycle logistics. Decoupling and quantification of both the full age EOL and of the early discard flows is useful, the latter being the target of enacted legislation aiming at increasing reuse.« less
  • Modification and loss of forests due to natural and anthropogenic disturbance contribute an estimated 20% of annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions worldwide. Although forest carbon pool modeling rarely suggests a 'carbon neutral' flux profile, the life cycle assessment community and associated product carbon footprint protocols have struggled to account for the GHG emissions associated with forestry, specifically, and land use generally. Principally, this is due to underdeveloped linkages between life cycle inventory (LCI) modeling for wood and forest carbon modeling for a full range of forest types and harvest practices, as well as a lack of transparency in globalized forestmore » supply chains. In this paper, through a comparative study of U.S. and Chinese coated freesheet paper, we develop the initial foundations for a methodology that rescales IPCC methods from the national to the product level, with reference to the approaches in three international product carbon footprint protocols. Due to differences in geographic origin of the wood fiber, the results for two scenarios are highly divergent. This suggests that both wood LCI models and the protocols need further development to capture the range of spatial and temporal dimensions for supply chains (and the associated land use change and modification) for specific product systems. The paper concludes by outlining opportunities to measure and reduce uncertainty in accounting for net emissions of biogenic carbon from forestland, where timber is harvested for consumer products. - Highlights: Black-Right-Pointing-Pointer Typical life cycle assessment practice for consumer products often excludes significant land use change emissions when estimating carbon footprints. Black-Right-Pointing-Pointer The article provides a methodology to rescale IPCC guidelines for product-level carbon footprints. Black-Right-Pointing-Pointer Life cycle inventories and product carbon footprint protocols need more comprehensive land use-related accounting. Black-Right-Pointing-Pointer Interdisciplinary collaboration linking the LCA and forest carbon modeling communities is necessary.« less