Over the years, Patagonia has focused a tremendous amount of time and energy on finding ways to reduce the impacts of our business operations. Through life cycle analyses of our clothing and gear, we’ve learned that most of the environmental impacts come from growing or synthesizing the fibers and manufacturing the fabrics. But until recently, we hadn’t conducted an in-depth analysis on the impacts of our transportations systems or the potential to integrate alternative fuel technologies into those systems.
That changed in April 2012, when we began working with a group of graduate students from UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. As part of their studies, they are conducting a research project that will evaluate how we transport goods in the US and explore the possible use of more environmentally friendly fuels. Patagonia does not own a transportation fleet; instead we contract with companies that specialize in distribution and transportation to ship our products. We asked the students to investigate ways we can integrate low-carbon fuels into our transportation network. By doing so, we hope to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Transportation accounts for nearly one-third of all US energy consumption, and the increased use of heavy-duty vehicles is a growing source of greenhouse gas emissions (EIA 2012). It is projected that over the next 25 years, transportation via freight trucks will increase by more than 100 billion miles (EIA 2012).
More than 90% of US transportation energy comes from petroleum products (Farrell & Sperling 2007). But not all petroleum-based fuels are the same when it comes to their environmental impacts, particularly the release of greenhouse gases and their contribution to global warming. Companies like ours, therefore, can influence the magnitude of greenhouse gas emissions through their choice of fuels.
[We don’t own our own transportation fleet but if we did it might look something like this. Photo: Craig Holloway]
The students working on this project are analyzing Patagonia’s transportation network, carbon emissions and access to alternative fuels. Their goal is to help us determine whether or not it is feasible to improve our practices. Their ultimate goal is to create a tool that can be used broadly by other companies to assess existing impacts and possible alternatives, while also weighing monetary and logistical costs.
Using information gathered from the freight companies that move our products, the Bren students are working to establish a baseline assessment conducted in accordance with ISO 14040/14044 standards. Because of the increasing prevalence in the transportation sector of tar sands fuel, a particularly harmful form of energy, they will also try to determine the extent to which it is used in our distribution network and whether or not it is possible to avoid it.
They will then create a tool that enables companies to input their own logistics to calculate transportation impacts and explore possible fuel alternatives. A “well to wheel” fuel life cycle assessment will show the environmental impacts of extracting and processing different fuels, and will also include their tailpipe impacts. The students will be looking at compressed natural gas, electricity, diesel/electric, fuel cell/electric, hydrogen and liquefied natural gas, as well as tar sands.
The potential to integrate alternative fuels and technologies into our distribution network depends in part on government support and incentives. To that end, the Bren students will evaluate relevant local, state and federal programs. They will also examine opportunities for long-term savings through lower fuel and maintenance costs, and assess whether the current availability of alternative fuels makes it practical for us to switch. The students will complete their transportation fuel studies by April 2013.
Update (7/25/13): The study has been published and is now available for review.
US Energy Information Administration (2012). What are the major sources and users of energy in the United States?
Farrell Alexander E. and Sperling Daniel (2007). A Low-Carbon Fuel Standard for California, Part 1: Technical Analysis.
Farrell Alexander E. and Sperling Daniel (2007). A Low-Carbon Fuel Standard for California, Part 2: Policy Analysis.