Sustainability 101

Product Supply Chains - There’s Something in the Air

Talia Vicars
There's something in the air

It’s hard to consider that the daily purchases we make could be intensifying environmental issues, like air pollution. When we buy stuff, we don’t often digest how our consumption habits actually stack up. 

Some culprits of air pollution are clear to see. Take, for example, a tailpipe pumping sooty clouds from the back of a car. Others are less overtly grimy, like a cell phone. Sure, there’s some packaging material to toss, but there’s no obvious pollution associated with a cell phone, right? Well, you might only be considering half of the phone’s story… 

What happened before the products we love reached a store shelf or online shopping cart? When you look at the products that pollute the most over their full lifecycle, there are protagonists in this story that are much less obvious than a tailpipe.

What is air pollution?

Are emissions and air pollution the same thing? Nope, not necessarily. Greenhouse gases (GHGs) are gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide. These are super essential to keep our planet at a liveable temperature, but when we emit more GHGs than our atmosphere knows what to do with, we run into a big problem: global warming. Pollutants, on the other hand, are what cause poor air quality - things like lead, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. When pollutants are released into the atmosphere, they create environmental concerns like smog and acid rain, as well as health concerns like lung and respiratory issues. 

What does a product’s supply chain have to do with air pollution?

Supply chains encompass all the activity that happens before a product reaches a shelf, including sourcing, production, and distribution. For raw materials to turn into usable products, they travel from hand to hand, and from facility to facility, which creates vast amounts of air pollution that we might not see directly.  

To start, suppliers source raw materials for products. Materials that cannot be grown naturally or in a lab must be drilled or mined. Outside of the impacts drilling and mining can have on ecosystems and wildlife, they also unearth unrefined matter that becomes airborne when exposed to the earth’s surface (cough, cough, pollution). Smelters and manufacturers process and refine that raw material into various components and then into products, which releases emissions into the air during the operational process. If the product needs cosmetic upgrades, like a coat of paint, other chemicals are emitted that result in even poorer air quality (*volatile organic compounds (VOCs) have entered the chat*). Finally, distributors transport those finished goods to a retailer, who then redistributes the products to the shopper. Ok, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but there are a lot of points along a product’s supply chain where air pollution can be a problem.

Why? Well, what all of these stages have in common is that the goods have to be transported from Point A to Point B in the chain. Long-distance transportation means fuel consumption. Burning fossil fuels like gasoline releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, as well as toxins like benzene, formaldehyde, and diesel particles. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that GHGs from transportation alone account for almost 30% of total U.S. GHG emissions, over 55% of nitrous oxide emissions, and over 60% of carbon monoxide emissions. Sheesh.


Which product supply chains impact air pollution the most?

The world economic forum published a report in 2021 that stated just eight product supply chains account for more than 50% of global emissions, some of which are also major contributors to air pollution. Let’s unpack some of the unsuspecting culprits contributing to air pollution.

Fast Fashion Faux Pas

The creation of cheap, mass-produced clothing items that attempt to meet rapidly changing style trends is known as “fast fashion” and it has been on the rise for years. Tees and tanks are produced at breakneck speed, often in spaces with inadequate working conditions or environmental management policies. Fast-fashion supply chains are typically dispersed across developing nations where finished products are shipped by air to ensure short lead times. 

It’s also common that these items are made with synthetic, petroleum-based, and nonbiodegradable fibers, like nylon and polyester. The process of creating these fibers generates more air emissions than their natural counterparts. For example, creating one medium polyester t-shirt creates an estimated 5.5 kg of CO2, compared to an estimated 2.34 kg for an organic cotton one. That difference is equivalent to burning over 3 pounds of coal, or powering 400 smartphones. The human-made nature of synthetic fibers also makes many recycling options ineffective. Couple that with chronic overproduction and it equals landfilling or incineration, the latter of which releases all the icky toxins that are in the synthetic dyes as it burns.

Under the current production trajectory, if no further efforts are established beyond what is already taking place to curb emissions, fashion industry emissions will rise by a third to 2.7 billion tonnes in 2030 (compared to 2.1 billion in 2018).

Electronics - the Negative Side of Batteries (Get it?)

Electronics are one of the eight dirtiest supply chains primarily due to one thing: batteries.

Batteries contain a handful of minerals like copper, manganese, nickel, lithium, and cobalt. Those last two are super common in the batteries that power cell phones, laptops, and electric vehicles. The issue is that these minerals are often irresponsibly and unsustainably sourced – the most popular extraction method for lithium involves mining in natural brines found in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia, which depletes the aquifers local communities depend on by up to 95%. Similarly, mining for cobalt occurs in international zones struggling with political instability, like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which supplies 63% of the world’s cobalt. These highly desired minerals have led to instances of corruption, violence, the loss of natural resources, and major health risks as all those unearthed heavy metals make their way into the air and local streams and rivers. (Friendly reminder that we’re still *just* in the sourcing phase. We haven’t moved to battery production. See what we mean about the beginning, middle, and end of a product’s story? Well, the plot continues to thicken…)

The production and recycling of batteries require a massive amount of (mostly nonrenewable) energy. It can take up to 50-60 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity to produce one kWh of battery capacity. Woah. This means that the product and its battery would need to have a long enough lifespan to offset the emissions generated in its sourcing, creation, and disposal phases combined.

Unfortunately, due to some of the toxins found in the components that make up electronics, and because they’re hard to disassemble, finding efficient recycling solutions is difficult. This drives home the importance of longevity in product life.  

The Takeaway?

Purchases are a part of life and it can feel daunting to navigate these nuances. Let’s be clear - cleaning up the supply chain is not the job of a consumer. But, in the name of empowering ourselves to become more conscious citizens, it’s good to consider the following:

  • What’s really needed? Is the purchase necessary? Is it durable? Are there repair options?
  • Think about the whole product lifecycle. The shorter the lifespan of the product and the fewer recycling or recovery options, the less “worth it” the emissions and pollutants released in its creation become.
  • Help make fast fashion go out of style by repairing items that may just need a little love and a sewing kit, donating clothes you’re finished with, and by limiting new purchases to brands that align with disclosure frameworks or third-party certifications that enforce high standards of environmental and social behavior. Opt for natural fibers and keep an eye out for brands that are members of ethical standards like Sustainable Apparel Coalition, Fair Trade, and the Global Organic Textile Standard.
  • If an electronic gets glitchy or needs some internal work, look towards repair or refurbishment options. When an electronic inevitably reaches its end of life, consider what return options are available to ensure proper disposal.