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Making Sustainable Procurement Choices: Navigating Carbon Emission Trade-offs

In the realm of sustainable procurement, we often encounter challenging trade-offs when seeking to reduce carbon emissions. As we witnessed last September, LEGO's bold decision to ditch oil-free bricks sent ripples through the world of sustainability. In a remarkable twist, the world's largest toymaker revealed the complexity of balancing sustainability and carbon reduction. Let's explore those trade-offs through three examples.

stack of legos


Virgin Plastic Reduction vs. Carbon Reduction

Consider the case of LEGO, the world's largest toymaker. Two years ago, they tested a prototype made of recycled plastic bottles (rPET) for their bricks. However, they changed their strategy last September, opting for honesty in a bold move. To implement this new material, they needed to modify equipment and add extra ingredients to maintain product properties and qualities. Surprisingly, this led to higher CO2 emissions over the product's lifetime compared to traditional oil-based ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), which is used in around 80% of Lego pieces.

The key consideration for LEGO now is to find a way to become more circular without using rPET. They start to focus on an even more circular approach by reusing old bricks. In North America and soon in Europe, you can donate your old LEGO bricks that are then collected and sorted. LEGO is also thinking to go further by introducing a model where people can earn money by returning the old bricks sitting in their children’s bedrooms.


Social Responsibility vs. Carbon Reduction

A solution commonly heard for reducing your carbon footprint is to switch the origin of sourced commodities. It seems straightforward: source your inputs closer to your production and distribution sites or source from a country with less risk of deforestation and you will reduce your carbon emissions.

However, when considering switching the origin of sourced commodities, we must think about the potential consequences on local communities. While changing the sourcing location may reduce carbon emissions, it could also impact local employment. Have we taken measures to ensure that we don't leave communities jobless or force them into underground employment? Communication with local stakeholders and organisations here is key for avoiding a social disaster.


Animal Welfare vs. Carbon Reduction

Consider the European Chicken Commitment, a prominent initiative that champions increased space and longer lives for chickens and that many industry players have committed to. Two of its requirements are 1) to implement a maximum stocking density of 30kg/m2 or less and 2) to adopt breeds that demonstrate higher welfare outcome (and therefore live longer). Some argue that these two measures increase carbon emissions by a factor of two compared to the current practices in the European Union.

The key consideration here is how much this particular supply chain is material for your carbon footprint. Is it really worth it to accept lower animal welfare standards for reducing sometimes a tiny proportion of your carbon emissions? Or are there other carbon emissions reduction initiatives that you can implement without sacrificing animal wellbeing?


So, what's the solution?

Here are some steps to guide your choices:

1. Define Your Priorities: Start by understanding your motivations for pursuing sustainability and sustainable procurement. Is it a legal requirement? Is it driven by client demands? Or the result of strong commitment from your employees and leaders? Check out this other blog post if you want to know more about the drivers of sustainable procurement.

2. Understand Your Impact: Identify what is most material to your stakeholders. Where can your efforts have the most significant impact and leverage?

3. Create a Priority List: Compile a list of sustainability subjects and prioritise them using the two steps above (with hopefully Human Rights at the very top).

4. Communication is Key: Ensure that you communicate this list internally, especially with decision-makers and buyers. Too often, a lot of time and energy is spent crafting well-thought-out priority lists that then collect dust on a shelf in the sustainability department.


Yes, in an ideal world we would like to be sustainable on all fronts. But we don’t live in an ideal world. As procurement and sustainability professionals, we can’t wait for the perfect solution. We must be pragmatic, adaptable and committed to continuous improvement to really drive change in our industries.


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