Energy Burdens of Conventional Wholesale and Retail Portions of Product Life Cycles

Authors

  • Gregory A. Norris,

    Corresponding authorSearch for more papers by this author
    • President of Sylvatica, an industrial ecology consulting firm in North Berwick, ME, USA; a visiting scientist with the Environmental Science and Engineering Program at the Harvard University School of Public Health in Boston, MA, USA; and adjunct professor at the Complex Systems Research Center of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, NH, USA.

  • Filippo Della Croce,

    Search for more papers by this author
    • Conducted research for this article as a visiting researcher at Harvard University School of Public Health. He is an environmental engineer and currently a researcher at EPFL, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Lausanne Federal Institute of Tehcnology) in Lausanne, Switzerland

  • Olivier Jolliet

    Search for more papers by this author
    • Assistant professor of sustainable development at EPFL, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (Lausanne Federal Institute of Tehcnology) in Lausanne, Switzerland


Harvard School of Public Health, 401 Park Drive, Room 408-B West, Boston, MA 02115, USA gnorris@hsph.harvard.edu

Summary

E-commerce is often cited as offering the potential to reduce wholesale and retail burdens within product life cycles; however its potential impacts upon transport may be positive or negative. But the relative environmental importance of wholesale and retail trade and their intervening transportation links within product life cycles has not been generally characterized. The objective of this research was to assess the upstream (preusage) life-cycle energy burden shares associated with retail trade and wholesale trade using input-output life-cycle assessment (IO LCA) with a special focus on the electronic computers sector.

According to our results, the physical transfers of products within the distribution phase play a minor role in terms of energy consumption compared with wholesaling and retailing. On the other hand, the supply chains of the wholesale and retail trade sectors can lead to energy consumption that is a significant share of the total preconsumer energy consumption for many products. Thus, where e-commerce circumvents wholesale and/or retail trade, it can have a major impact on total preconsumer energy consumption.

As an example, for the electronic computers sector, retailing and wholesaling as a portion of distribution are responsible for 38% of the total energy consumption from production until purchase (cradle to gate), whereas transportation within the distribution phase corresponds to only 9%. Our analysis of more than 400 commodities in the United States showed that for the large majority of them, retailing and wholesaling account for appreciable shares of the total preconsumer energy burdens. Wholesaling and retailing should be included in LCA, and IO LCA is an effective tool for doing so.

Ancillary