How much of an environmental impact does one tent have? This spring, as part of our sustainability initiatives, we set out to answer that question!
Diamond Brand Gear partnered with a group of Duke University Masters Students on a project for their Life Cycle Analysis class. Seven Masters of Environmental Management students, including Abby Martell, Rachel Gordon, Max Hermanson, Diane Sanchez, Megan Lundequam, Cisco Tomasino, and Andy Zou, worked with Diamond Brand to carry out a life cycle assessment (LCA). We studied the Hestia Tent, and some alternative fabric options being considered to increase tent sustainability. Working with CEO John Delaloye, we collected data about the tent and how it is produced. Then analyzed the tent’s environmental impact. And finally provided recommendations for making future tents more sustainable!
but first things first, what is an lca?
An LCA is an analysis of the potential environmental impacts of a product during its lifecycle. Data is collected across the lifecycle — like how much material or energy is used. Then it is analyzed for impacts like greenhouse gas emissions, human health impacts, water quality impacts, and air quality impacts. For more information on LCAs, check out this guide: https://ecochain.com/knowledge/life-cycle-assessment-lca-guide/
The process starts by defining the scope and system boundaries. Products usually have wide reaching impacts — boundaries help keep the scope manageable. For example, for our tent environmental impact LCA, we looked at the tent from “cradle to gate”. This means from raw material — like cotton or steel — to the finished product you buy. Other LCAs might include the impacts of use and disposal as well. In this case we were really interested in what materials in the manufacturing phase have the greatest impact. So that’s where we focused our data collection.
why are lcas important?
LCAs give us a lot of information about what materials or what processes in the creation of a product, like a tent, have the greatest environmental impacts. Designers can then use this information to strategize new ways to decrease product impact by using more sustainable materials. Companies can also work with “hot spots” in their supply chain to see where reductions in impact are possible.
For Diamond Brand, we looked at the tent in general to see where its biggest impacts were. Then, we looked at a set of alternative fabrics Diamond Brand has been considering. These were more sustainable options than its current fabric. Through LCA, we were able to see how much the impact of the tent decreased for each fabric type. These fabrics were also tested by Diamond Brand for durability and performance. We were able to identify some of the best options for Diamond Brand to move forward with by combining those results with our new environmental impact data!
one big takeaway: lcas are not easy
The hardest part is getting the data you need. Some information in your supply chain might not be easily available. Additionally, the environmental impact of different materials comes from published scientific studies. But what if no one has studied the specific material you use? Or what if you can find an LCA for cotton grown in a specific climate, but not the climate your cotton comes from?
Assumptions are an important part of the LCA process. They are basically inevitable. The hard part is answering: How many assumptions are too many? How big of a leap is too big? At what point is your data no longer reliable? These were questions we asked ourselves often in this process.
Another challenge is the technical nature of the process and output. The results we got are hard to understand for anyone not trained in LCA. One way to make results easier to understand is to use them comparatively. We can compare the relative reduction of impact from one strategy to another. Or we can to break down what percentage of the total product impact comes from each material or process.
so what did we learn?
We learned a few things. First, the steel frame of the tent had the largest environmental impact. The second largest impact came from the fabric. Since the structural integrity and durability provided by the frame is so essential to Diamond Brand’s products, fabric felt like the material we could experiment with first.
For the fabric, we learned that switching from a conventional (virgin) polyester to a recycled polyester, decreased the greenhouse gas emissions of that polyester by around 10 – 15%. Switching from conventionally grown to organically grown cotton reduced the impact of that cotton by around 75 – 80%. Both of these materials are in consideration for new fabrics. And Diamond Brand can now take this sustainability data into account when deciding which options to move forward with!
some data points are estimations
However, it’s important to note that these data points are estimations based on some assumptions. Much of our LCA results come from comparing our materials to materials that scientists have already examined for impact in detail. We cannot necessarily apply the results from an existing LCA of cotton, for example, directly to our cotton. Scientists carried out the existing study on a specific set of fibers, farmed and processed a specific way. The results for our cotton might be different if the farmers used slightly different practices. Or, if the fiber was processed with different equipment. Since we cannot easily go out and gather data in the cotton field that provides our cotton, we have had to make some assumptions. And, we know that our results are not absolute, completely accurate results.
Because our results were not definitive for fabric comparison purposes, we augmented our results with qualitative information about the sustainability of each fabric type. For example, cotton appeared to result in more greenhouse gas emissions than recycled polyester. However, greenhouse gases are not the only sustainability metric that matters. Cotton is biodegradable, so it’s use will not result in fiber that won’t breakdown for thousands of years, like plastics. Cotton farming can also be managed to regenerate land and soil. It doesn’t create microplastics that negatively impact human and ecosystem health.
responsibility and authenticity
Our hope is that by communicating the nuance involved in identifying a material as “sustainable” or not, we can engage in more generative conversations with our suppliers and customers. There is no golden ticket to becoming a more sustainable company. We strive to remain responsible and authentic by casting a wide net, being curious, and remaining open to nuance and new information. We are always learning and always exploring new ways to understand the breadth of our impact. LCA is just one piece in this complex web of sustainability.
why work with duke?
Diamond Brand Gear has been partnering with classes in Life Cycle Analysis and Sustainability at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill for several years. “Partnering with students helps us think outside the box,” says CEO John Delaloye. “The students get an opportunity to learn from us and we benefit from their unique perspectives and problem solving. Collaborative innovation is essential to solving the challenge of climate change. And we think partnering with our local North Carolina community is the best way for us to make an impactful change.”