Ecological Footprint Tag on Every Product and Service
Humanity needs to radically cut down its ecological footprint.
To that end, an obvious first step is to audit the ecological aftermath of our designs—-and then display it on every respective product and service, much as a price tag is displayed at the present, coupled with footprint allocation for each adult.
What is necessary is an assessment of the environmental footprint of our various industrial activities: those that extract various raw materials, those that fabricate products, and those that are within the service industry. We need to assess the extent of environmental degradation and the extent of resource depletion. While inherently crude and generic, such an assessment would be close enough to the mark to be of service. The assessment would take into account the combined footprint of the creation, usage, and eventual disposal of a product. One product may require less by way of raw materials; however, if most of it cannot be recycled it may have higher combined, total footprint throughout its lifecycle than another product that requires a lot of raw material—-all of which would be recycled in one fashion or another.
During the operation of the product, we need to tally the footprint of routine maintenance and the total energy input during its anticipated period of operation. Then there is the matter of replacement parts. There is a big difference between a design that allows replacement of one component for another, and a design that requires the technician to toss out an entire section. Above and beyond all of these, there is the footprint of the infrastructure needed for the functionality of the product. Like everything else in the assessment, we are talking about the proportional fraction related or allocated or used by the product.
Ultimately, the footprint of a product is case-specific. Harvesting and shipping kiwis from New Zealand to Japan has a different footprint than kiwis grown and consumed in Japan. Ultimately, every ecoregion has its own unique set of circumstances. Some areas are more degraded than others and by and large are more vulnerable than others. The same activity performed in two very different areas of the world may have two very different footprints. Hence, every supplier and manufacturer would have its own code, its own footprint that reflects its own chain of suppliers.
Much like Wikipedia, I envision the assessment of a product's footprint is to be a vast open-source database compiled and constantly updated by millions of distributors, suppliers, and manufacturers worldwide. Each of them may insert an additional piece of data, a new link between products or industrial activities. Each of their customers in turn builds upon the data of their suppliers in arriving at their own footprint. The creation of such a database is a cumulative process. Once the footprint of a ton of iron from each of the respective mines is established, the steel mill just plugs in the amount of iron delivered and its origin. The footprint of the iron has already been calculated by its respective mining company. A car-manufacture analyst just uses the footprint of the derived steel without having to trace back its origins. And thus the analyses build upon one another. All parameters are ultimately interlinked, reflecting the true dynamics of the marketplace. The footprint values within this colossal spreadsheet are altered continuously. A manufacturer may increase the percentage of recycled iron in its production of steel, and as its footprint is updated to reflect this, it causes a ripple effect throughout all the derivative products and industrial activities.
This open-source database ought to come with a modeling feature, letting vendors play with various chains of supply and to arrive at different hypothetical footprints for their own product or service. In attempting to raise the score, there are many other things a vendor may do. It is possible to improve the engineering of the product to last longer or to engineer it so that it would allow the replacement of individual components. It is possible to design the product to have a second life as something else. It may also be possible to change the application of a given product and give it a broader functionality.
As a matter of course, the footprint score ought to be accessible to the general public and to prospective shoppers in particular. In fact, labels with a footprint summary ought to be plastered on products. Specifically, the data could be distilled into three composite indices: impact on water, depletion of resources, and direct disturbance. In addition, the label will have a radar chart (aka, polar chart or spider chart) that displays the impact of distinct toxins and pollutants.
The first priority of the ecologically available natural resources and activities should be applied to the creation and maintenance of infrastructure facilitating our basic needs. Insofar as the balance of the environmental footprint we can exert, I suggest it would be apportioned among all the people of the world to be used as each sees fit. People would be given a monthly allotment of footprint and this would hem in--define--the outer limits of their consumption activities. Every month, footprint credit is added to one’s account, adjusted to the current state of the planetary system and the number of people alive.
Naturally, people would be wise to manage their footprint with care. The introduction of a footprint allotment for each person fundamentally alters the thrust of the marketplace. The incentive would be to acquire, and therefore produce, commodities and services that have a lower footprint price tag. It also means that a twenty-room mansion is far more of a liability than an asset. This wouldn’t just be a socially-contrived principle; this really is the case.
Under such a scheme, every product and service would display a footprint tag. When a person obtains a product, a due amount of footprint credit is deducted from one’s account. More specifically, insofar as the footprint credit is concerned, there will be a deduction in the allotted credit along each of the parameters that make up footprint; the specifics depend on the particular product or service. A cell phone may come with a footprint overhead of 53 Direct Disturbance, 79 Toxins, 122 Material Scarcity, 39 Water Resources, and 16 Biomass Used.
Once a person uses up his footprint quota, that would be it until one’s tank is refueled again with more footprint credit at the beginning of the next month. To avoid finding oneself with zero footprint credit, it would be possible to set up an automated system that will keep some footprint in reserve, setting aside monthly savings to use as a buffer. It is also possible to have a publicly-traded loan website. Participants set up a contract with hundreds of millions of others, each agreeing to loan to each other automatically when any hit a zero balance in a given month. The system would look at other accounts and would borrow based on carefully pre-set criteria. Each person can define a threshold in which he is comfortable loaning out and can define the loan period. There would be no technical possibility for the borrower to obtain some of the lender’s footprint and make a run for it. When the borrower is due to receive a new allocation of footprint credit, before it hits his account, a portion of it is automatically credited to his lender’s account.
Behind the scenes, the trade system would be able to smooth out the daily operation to a large measure. Yet, we must never forsake the underlying reality. Water Usage has nothing in common with Earth Disturbance—-let alone Material Scarcity, which puts value on the availability of nonrenewable resources. Thus, if many in the world draw heavily on Earth Disturbance, we may all run into the imposed ecological limits in a given month. If push comes to shove, no amount of creative accounting and trading would change that fact. Unlike the concocted notion of money that has always been just a cultural construct, footprint has a physical reality and very physical consequences, if overplayed.
The footprint is amortized over the lifespan of the product usage. If a person acquires a chocolate bar, the entire footprint is deducted immediately from one’s account. If one acquire a place of residence, the footprint over the lifecycle of the place is amortized over the projected period the house is going to be in existence. Whether a one-time lump withdrawal or installments, the schedule of footprint withdrawal is set for every commodity and service to reflect its individual nature. The practice of footprint amortization of some products would create a disparity between actual footprint exerted on the planet in a given period and the footprint on record. In actuality, the construction phase of a house accounts for the bulk of the house’s footprint, and the notion that we can amortize it over time in equal installments is but a necessary fiction.
Everything else being equal, it is obvious that people living in heavily degraded, ecologically-fragile regions of the world have to tread more lightly than those who live in a relatively intact environment. Indeed, commodities and services have a footprint that is locale- and context-dependent.
Every additional layer of nuance would allow the footprint system to track more closely the reality of our ecological activities. Every added layer contributes.
The Toxins parameter belies the true complexity of hundreds of very different toxins, not interchangeable in any sense, so even the ostensible complexity of having five different parameters to keep tab of is a vast simplification. It is a balancing act between what is practical to manage and what still presents an effective tool to monitor and constrict our environmental impact. Having said that, what would be overwhelmingly complex for people would be but child’s play for a computer. Once again, behind the scenes, every commodity may be comprised in truth of hundreds of distinct parameters, such as those indicating the level of arsenic or GHG emissions. In fact, everyone would get a footprint allotment that would be comprised of those hundreds of parameters.
So while it would appear to us that we obtain a pen that has five Biomass Used points and this is the amount being deducted from our account, in actuality numerous, differing deductions would occur in dozens of sub categories within the Biomass Used umbrella. The system will continuously trade from within all the users’ deficits and excesses of the various sub categories, compensating and adjusting. None of this may be apparent to the consumers, but in setting up the next month’s footprint balance, the agency administering it would adjust the footprint points of various products to reflect our activities. If we, across the board, pushed seawater acidification to the outer edges of ecological well-being, the credit of the overarching category of Toxins would have lower availability in the future.
The footprint system tracks the physical reality close enough to be useful. However, there is no need to confuse it with perfection.