There is a fast-growing demand, from companies and regulatory agencies, for information about life-cycle environmental impacts of products. Consumers want information that will help them choose products that have less environmental impacts, and companies can use this information to find opportunities for reducing environmental impacts. For instance, consumers might use this information to choose between notepads made from recycled paper vs. virgin paper, while companies might use this information to focus on recycling efforts or more efficient transportation of the notepads.

If the focus is on greenhouse gas emissions, these life-cycle impacts are often referred to as “carbon footprints”; if the impacts are broader (including greenhouse gas emissions, other pollutants, water usage, toxic releases, etc.), these impacts are obtained by LCA (life-cycle assessment) studies. Although the LCA field has been active for some time, information coming out of LCA studies is not immediately suitable for business decision-making. Eg: a recent LCA comparing disposable and reusable diapers in the UK is well over 100 pages, the results are not conclusive, and do not translate to other countries as they depend heavily on how the electricity used to wash the reusable diapers is generated.

Conversely, within the operations management community, there is a rapidly growing subfield of “closed-loop supply chains”, or “green supply chains”, that is seeking to design and operate global supply chains in more environmentally benign ways. However, that academic community rarely uses information from the LCA community, partly due to the complexity of most LCA results. Instead, the supply chain management community currently simply assumes that “recycling is good”, ignoring the fact that sometimes the energy implications of collecting and processing materials for recycling may be worse than the resource implications of using virgin materials instead of recycling.

Our objective is to bridge these two communities. To that end, we have started creating an informal “carbon footprinting working group”, which currently has 75 participating members from a wide range of institutions in four continents.The aim for this working group is to share examples of business-relevant LCA studies, collaborate on research projects, organize workshops, and help inform ongoing efforts to develop standards for product-level carbon footprinting. We are also working on literature review paper to set up the research agenda for interdisciplinary teams of industrial ecology and operations scholars and professionals.