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Measuring emissions is not (yet) a science

Your emissions transparency cannot (yet) help you with exact numbers but with identifying major levers of reduction potential.

When we help companies measure their CO2e emissions, we always work with specialist agencies. They have the benefit of access to proprietary Life Cycle Analysis (LCAs) that measure environmental impact including emissions of materials production and other important business activities. Together with geographical input data and other relevant assumptions the LCA estimates are used to model the emission factors of company activities.

An LCA is a scientific assessment that is applicable to the boundaries, processes, and products defined in the study. The emissions of a kilo of finished cotton material can be anything from 7 to 30 kilos CO2e per kilo of material depending on the farming practices and weather conditions in the study, the thickness of the spun yarn, the coloring methods used, and the amount of renewable energy used in the making of the fabric. The estimate also depends on the exact LCA method used.

Unfortunately, the LCAs behind the emissions are seldom publicly available making it very difficult for companies and their stakeholders to verify the validity of the used assumptions and the resulting estimates, or to compare their estimates to the estimates of other companies.

In the past years, we worked with eight different agencies, giving us and our clients very different results on very similar questions. None of them are obviously wrong, but they use different databases, LCAs, and modeling assumptions.

As Veronica Kassetly shows in her insightful article on LCAs used in the apparel sector the lack of transparency and the use of results beyond the boundaries of the original LCAs make the use of the scientific work inherently unscientific.

The apparently "exact" emission measures cannot be taken at face value. This always surprises the management teams and boards that we work with. When they ask if their emissions are 8.000 tCO2e, 10.000 tCO2, or 30.000 tCO2 the answer is, unfortunately, "well, that depends".

Working with emissions every day we can deal with this ambiguity and complexity, and the results, when used carefully, can be used to identify major levers of reduction potential and measure improvements. For executives looking for fast and exact numbers, and wanting to benchmark against competitors, alternative materials, and production methods, this is a real and unexpected complication.

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