Beyond the Carbon Footprint: Embedded Energy and the Resource Shed

An introduction to embedded energy, supply chains, and product origins

By now, the term ‘carbon footprint’ is a part of our shared vocabulary. But how many of us have actually been moved to radically change our consumption habits because of it? Unfortunately, the data behind our individual carbon footprints is often difficult to follow and hard to understand, making our daily choices as a conscious consumer more challenging. I propose that in addition to being aware of our own carbon footprint, we each pay close attention to what might be called our personal “resource-shed.”

Much like the health of each ecosystem depends on its local watershed, we each are dependent on a multitude of resources, each with very particular geographic origins and complex supply chains.

While most of the goods we consume are locally available or can be shipped directly to our doorsteps, the materials that go into these goods have wide-ranging geographic origins, each with diverse and complex supply chains and production methods. Often the convenience of having such a wide range of goods at our literal fingertips undermines our ability to follow the supply chain to the raw material sources, muddling our understanding of how vast our individual ecological footprint can be.

We can begin to think of all the resources we use, all the products we consume, as contributing to our own personal “resource-shed.” Our “resource-shed” is the physical geographic area and accompanying raw materials that are required to manufacture everything we consume.

For example, the cotton t-shirt you’re currently wearing could be made of cotton grown in India. After being harvested, it was transported to a facility where it was milled and processed into fabric, then transported to Bangladesh where it was sewn into a garment. The t-shirt was then packaged in plastic and shipped across the ocean to a distribution warehouse before it was stocked in your local store. While you might say the resource-shed that supports your lifestyle via the cotton t-shirt is multiple regions in India and the factory in Bangladesh, there are several more factors. The cotton was transported between the processing facility in India and the factory in Bangladesh in an Isuzu truck, a Japanese vehicle. The plastic packaging was manufactured in China, and the oil for the vehicles originates in Malaysia. All of a sudden, your $5 t-shirt, which says made in Bangladesh, couldn’t have gotten to you without contributions from India, China, Japan and Malaysia.

This example isn’t intended to burden or intimidate you  only to show the idea of Embedded Energy its full glory. The t-shirt’s footprint includes not only the cotton it was made from, but also the energy and raw materials necessary to create it from crop to finished product.

In our global world, think about how vast our individual resource-sheds are when we combine together every item we have ever owned! It takes nearly our whole planet to supply and support our lifestyles. Every action we take or item we purchase has numerous direct and indirect ecological and social effects embedded into the action or item itself.

Even though thinking of our consumption in terms of a personal resource-shed might feel somewhat challenging, it is a valuable thought experiment insofar as we can begin to trace the rippling, nuanced effects of each of our choices. Awareness and curiosity is the first step.

If you’re up for it, select a nearby object and hypothesize in the comments below:

  1. What is the geographic resource-shed that this product originates from?
  2. What aspects of its production contribute Embedded Energy into the final product?

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