Top Ten in average consumer environmental footprint: 2017 edition

Studio Babette Porcelijn and Think Big Act Now have produced an accessible, well-illustrated book informing consumers and policy-makers about the direct and indirect environmental footprint of their everyday lives. Published in May 2016, it is entitled De Verborgen Impact (‘The Hidden Impact’). CE Delft supported the project by identifying the ten most important inputs to the overall annual environmental footprint of an average Dutch consumer.

In October 2017 a new edition of the book was published. For this new version CE Delft has updated its Top Ten, quantified the share of ICT in the category ‘general goods’ (including data servers) and calculated the environmental footprint of the use of toiletries. The overall calculation is now more robust than in the first edition, although the results remain largely unchanged. It is still only a provisional signpost, though, grounded partly in estimates and assumptions.

In drawing up the Top Ten we considered both visible impacts (consumption of food, fuel and electricity) and hidden impacts (energy consumed in production and transportation of goods, etc.). Consideration is given to activities under consumers’ own control (air travel, for instance) and those beyond their direct control (house and road construction, food wastage down the supply chain).

One interesting result of this analysis is that the purchase of ‘stuff’ (as ‘general goods’ are termed in this study), and the consumption of meat have a far larger footprint than any other category. This is likely to surprise many people. In the experience of CE Delft’s Supply Chain Analysis group, most people equate ‘environmental footprint’ with energy consumption, transportation and sometimes waste and packaging, and are largely ignorant of the major impact of food choices (in particular, meat), ‘general goods’ and materials (in homes and roads, for example) and clothing.

In an allied project, CE Delft also estimated the contribution of each product group to plastics pollution. In this publication the calculations underlying that assessment are explained in greater detail.