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Lifecycle Energy: A Product's True Carbon Footprint

Attention shoppers: Do you ever think about the amount of energy that is required to produce, transport, and dispose of the items you buy? How does the amount of energy used before you purchase the product—and after you get rid of the item—compare to the amount expended during the time you own it?

Energy is needed to create, transport, use, and dispose of most products. Lifecycle energy is the amount of energy consumed throughout the full lifecycle of a product—which is important to keep in mind as we aim to make sustainable purchasing decisions. 

Take a look at the typical lifecycle energy use of a product: 


Lifecycle energy is frequently expressed in terms of the Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions generated while producing that energy. A smartphone manufacturer recently disclosed that 78 percent of the emissions associated with its phones were released while producing the phone, while only 18 percent of estimated emissions were produced when generating the electricity used to charge the phone throughout its useful lifespan. 

What Can You Do?

Vehicles and certain types of appliances provide labels that inform customers about a product’s rate of energy usage; however, few companies disclose the amount of lifecycle energy in the items they sell. In light of this lack of information, what can we do to reduce the levels of lifecycle energy in the products we purchase?

Look for recycled content. Producing recycled materials uses much less energy than extracting and processing brand new materials. Buying products made with recycled content will help reduce your energy footprint.

Buy local. Transporting materials and products across the country (or around the world) can require large amounts of fuel. Purchasing products made by local companies, from local materials, reduces the energy required to transport the goods (thereby reducing the item’s overall lifecycle energy content). 

Investigate. Read up on what the makers of your favorite goods are doing to reduce the amount of energy that goes into their products. This information may be found in corporate sustainability reports or investor disclosures. International bodies such as GRI and CDP provide databases that include sustainability disclosures from thousands of companies around the world.

Follow up. If you cannot find adequate lifecycle energy information for a product, contact the company and tell them it is important to you that they disclose—and work to reduce—the amount of lifecycle energy in their products. 

By leading with these actions, individuals and companies can take concrete steps toward reducing lifecycle energy in all types of products!