HomeNewsGrand challenge: reduce carbon and water footprints of industry

Grand challenge: reduce carbon and water footprints of industry

From cars and personal care products to the food on their dinner table, consumers are increasingly seeking out products that are less harmful to the environment. Many companies are, in turn, responding to these demands by altering the way they make products — from the ingredients going in to the pollution coming out.

But the full impact of a product reflects a complex system that often has hundreds of producers engaged in thousands of processes to put that product into the hands of the end user. Once there, how the product is used and dispatched at the end of its life can have big impacts as well. Even the most well-intentioned companies struggle to identify which changes at what point in the value chain will give them the most sustainability bang for their buck.

Through the Institute on the Environment’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, the University of Minnesota is reaching across academic disciplines as well as out to the private sector to develop the tools and processes that will help companies meet the grand challenge of reducing their carbon and water footprints.

NiSE director Tim Smith, professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences and an IonE resident fellow, leads a team of engineers, economists and environmental scientists who collaborate with industry representatives, environmental nonprofit organizations and policy makers to develop tools businesses can use to make informed sourcing and production decisions affecting sustainability performance.

We asked Smith what NiSE has been working on lately. 

What are some of the biggest challenges NiSE is tackling?

We’re currently focusing many of our efforts on identifying the biggest impacts in product systems, the hot spots where potential improvements might have the largest effect on the system. Sometimes these hot spots are early in the value chain, for example, mining or agricultural production. Sometimes they are in production, like energy-intensive products such as paper, cement or petrochemicals. In other cases, the largest impacts can occur as products are used or discarded, like computers or vehicles. The challenge is that these hot spots are very different from one product system to the next, and from one type of impact to the next. Where a company like General Mills might focus its new product design or process improvement investments will depend on whether they’re looking at yogurt or breakfast cereal and whether they are most concerned about greenhouse gas emissions, water use or solid waste.

Managing a challenge like this while remaining profitable may not seem that difficult on the surface, except for the fact that many of the environmental impacts from that box of Cheerios aren’t under the direct control of General Mills. General Mills doesn’t grow the oats, they don’t manufacture the packaging and they don’t operate the city recycling programs. They do use a fair amount of energy in manufacturing, and they have worked quite hard over the past 40 years to reduce these impacts, but they have a brand to protect and increasingly that means coordinating with their suppliers and customers across the value chain. NiSE is developing new methods and tools that map these value chains and link them to the impacts and the decision-makers in a position to influence them.

One of the tools being developed by NiSE is FoodS3 (Food Systems Supply-Chain Sustainability), where U.S. corn and soybean intensive product supply chains have been mapped, identifying upstream carbon and water use hot spots. Approximately 80 percent of all corn grown in the U.S. is used in poultry, beef and pork production, and in the making of ethanol. So, while much of the corn in the U.S. is produced in the Midwest, it is distributed across the country to animal feedlots and ethanol production facilities. And those animals are transported to processing facilities, often hundreds of miles away, before being packaged under brands you might recognize (Hormel, Smithfield, Tyson, etc.). FoodS3 estimates the likely sourcing relationships between each of these stages in the supply chain and links the factories of downstream brand owners with the upstream locations where significant emissions and impacts to natural resources reside. In short, this tool helps companies see upstream impacts that are typically hidden to them but are important to many of their customers, and better assess where influencing suppliers’ operations might make the biggest difference.

What is your approach to working across disciplines and with external partners?

We work directly and indirectly with mostly large multinational companies, often through existing consortia and networks convened by environmental non-governmental organizations. For example, we have worked to develop methods to identify hotspots in agricultural supply chains with companies like Walmart, General Mills and Cargill through collaborations with the Sustainability Consortium and Environmental Defense Fund. We work with CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project) on supply chain reporting metrics, piloted by PepsiCo, Philips, L’Oreal, Walmart, Bank of America and Vodafone. Similarly, through the Global Environmental Management Initiative, we have worked with companies like 3M, FedEx, Kraft and Smithfield Foods on a tool for purchasing managers that helps them assess the environmental and economic trade-offs of sourcing strategies across the portfolios of products they buy.

We obviously can’t do this work without engagement from the best scholars and experts in their fields. This work is inherently transdisciplinary, so our project teams draw faculty, researchers and students from engineering, economics, public policy, environmental sciences and public health. We like to think that NiSE serves as a meaningful bridge between disciplines and communities of practice — where at the end of the day, we ask better questions of each other and roll up our sleeves to answer many of them.

What new innovation might we not have if not for these investments?

Most of our work focuses on existing product systems, as opposed to discovering the next new game-changing technology. That said, the work of our team helps to characterize the systems within which new technologies might enter. For example, in some of our work examining the way large industrials use electricity, we have provided important insights into the way new smart-grid technologies and demand response programs (pricing incentives for reducing demand during peak load time periods) might be adopted and the environmental impacts of those decisions. Similarly, another project exploring how future biorefineries manage their production mix of chemical, material and fuel products to meet profitability and carbon intensity goals will likely influence how these technologies evolve.

What would success look like for NiSE? 

The real sign of success, in my opinion, is evidence of the new knowledge we create (and academic research, in general) actually being used by practitioners. To me, that is the Holy Grail of engaged scholarship. This is why we are dedicating so much time and effort toward translating the new methods and knowledge created by our researchers into tools accessible to real users, innovators and makers. As producers seek innovative ways to respond to their customers and their customers’ customers, requests for greater transparency of sustainability performance, new approaches and tools focused on product value chains will be needed.

How can a business sign up to work with NiSE? 

To learn more about NiSE and how to partner with us, please contact Tim Smith or Jennifer Schmitt.

Photo by kirin_photo (iStock)

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