Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Sourcemap.org: Helping to Transform the Materials Economy

Source Map of a Typical Lap Top For over half a century now, linear product life cycles have dominated the marketplace and come to define the value sets that characterize modern economics.  The average consumer has unwittingly invested untold amounts of time, energy, and income to ensure that the Materials Economy remains a driving force throughout cultures around the world.  Product marketing incessantly bombards consumers in an effort to dupe them into believing that happiness and peace of mind are to be found in the latest product trends.

An April 2009 article published on The New Green Economy, entitled Transforming the Materials Economy, examined the outright unsustainability of the Materials Economy.  The article aimed to promulgate the devastating impact that linear product life cycles have had on the both natural and built environments, as well as the bleak future they may lay ahead if these cycles are not radically modified to mirror the circular life cycles as found in the natural world.

A new language of economics however is forging its way into the collective awareness as an ever-growing number of consumers are consciously waning their dependency on such an archaic and pernicious form of economics.  Sustainability has begun to reshape capitalism itself, but breaking the habits of old has proven to be a measured, complex process, as the public’s understanding of product life cycles remains clouded and deficient.

Hope for such change in consumer values is possible thanks to the ground-breaking endeavor of the team at Sourcemap.org, a social networking site that is helping to transform the Materials Economy by empowering product manufactures, business owners, and consumers to gauge the economic, social, and environmental impact of their manufacturing and purchasing decisions. The website provides its members with tools to create visual maps that chart the impact of product life cycles by analyzing the supply chains behind the products themselves.  These maps are then made available to other members, providing transparency with regards to product sustainability.

Leonardo Bonanni is the creator of Sourcemap, a project that is currently the focus of his doctoral work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.  Soon after performing the research that led to the creation of the project itself, Bonanni teamed up with two developers whose collaboration has led to the design of the bulk of what is found on the website today.

Matthew Hockenberry is Sourcemap’s principal web developer, and David Zwarg is responsible for creating the site’s map visualizations that give Sourcemap its unique and innovative user-friendly format.  In an exclusive interview with The New Green Economy earlier this week, Bonanni sat down to share his insight on the project. 

 Sourcemap is an online forum centered on open supply chains, and reaching a deeper understanding of how supply chains really work is crucial in creating an authentic sense of transparency and accountability.  “If we look at the impact of industrial production on the environment, we can trace that impact to a number of different levels,” explains Bonanni.  “The biggest focus in the press has been at the consumer level, where the consumer is able to choose between one product and another based on their greenness.  We wanted to highlight the complexity of those decisions if you consider all of the steps in a product’s life cycle, especially all of those steps over which the consumer has very little control.”

“A consumer might buy something, use it, and then throw it away or recycle it; but we found that a lot of the impact that products have is actually traceable to the raw materials extraction and the manufacturing, as well as a lot of the shipping that also takes place between various steps of the supply chain.  So we really wanted to highlight the complexity of a supply chain so that in one sense we take the responsibility off consumers, while at the same time educating them about the different levels of its complexity, as well as what their role and the role of industries is in shifting current practices into something more sustainable.”

Bonanni notes that while Sourcemap aims to reach broadly across the consumer spectrum, it does in fact focus on a specific target population.  “We believe everyone has the right to know this kind of information, but we’re targeting right now individuals in businesses that stand to make a very large impact.  So, for example, if you decide where to travel with your family as a consumer, you have some impact on the amount of possible carbon offset.  But if you’re deciding where your entire company should hold its yearly meeting, you have a much bigger impact—and that’s the kind of people we’re targeting.”

“Basically only environmental engineers know anything about how to assess carbon footprints.  We’re trying to make it so that any decision maker at the professional level can make a decision that’s beneficial, ranging from something as simple as what food to order when you cater an event, to something as complex as what products should you release on the market.”

One of the tools on Sourcemap that makes such decision making possible is the CO2e receipt feature provided for each supply chain. The receipt discloses the product’s total carbon footprint, measured in CO2e—the carbon dioxide equivalent produced upon manufacturing and processing the product.  (CO2e is the internationally recognized measure of greenhouse emissions.)

Take for example, one source map created by a site member for a popular tennis shoe—the Nike Air Max 180.  This particular map shows the final product to be assembled in Vietnam, using nine different components—such as leather, PU flexible foam, and Nylon 6—originating from four different countries, ranging from Argentina to China.  The specific weight in kilograms of each individual component is provided, as well as the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) produced upon manufacturing and processing the individual amount of each component.

In this case, the shoe’s carbon dioxide equivalent comes out to 5.13 kg per pair.  The receipt also shows the product’s total weight to be 1.59 kg, and that the from start to finish, the product traverses some 30,000 km across the globe before it finds its way into the hands of retailers and customers in Anytown, USA.
When asked to reflect upon some of the major problems that have resulted from an unchecked dependency on linear life cycles, Bonanni referenced the scarcity of the planet’s natural resources.  Citing copper as an example, he noted that far too much of the metal is being extracted and manufactured to be put into computers, with no practical way of making that same metal available for future use.  Bonanni also cited that many large companies are having trouble certifying their supply chains beyond the direct supplier, causing them to reconsider outsourcing the parts of their supply chain.  Perhaps one of the more immediate effects of larger companies reassessing whether to outsource supply chains will be a greater focus on local economies.  Bonnani feels that in there is finally a push in the U.S. towards supporting local economies, especially in food and agriculture.

“Sourcemap allows you to visualize social impact,” says Bonanni, “because wherever you’re buying the product is also where jobs are going to be created.  And most of the time it’s where the infrastructure that you build and the culture as a whole will be healthier.  The source maps allow people to decide what location means to them.  In some cases, it may mean investing locally, while in others it may mean investing in a particular country if interest that you want to see preserved.”

Sourcemap is an open source project, and Bonanni encourages those concerned from all over the world to contribute to the effort.  The website currently offers some 600 different source maps, tracking the CO2e for material goods, food products, and even popular modes of transportation.  Creating a new source map requires users to join the website at no cost.  For more information, visit http://www.sourcemap.org/.