The first step in setting a goal is to measure where you are starting from.
Horizon Organic, the largest USDA certified organic dairy brand in the world, announced in March 2020 that it was going to make its entire supply chain carbon positive—meaning it consumes more carbon than it discharges—by 2025.
Recently, the company reported the results of a cradle-to-grave Life Cycle Assessment that analyzed the environmental impacts associated with producing half a gallon of whole milk.
The study—commissioned by Danone North America, Horizon Organic's parent company—was conducted by Nicholson Consulting, which looked at the production process in 2018.
Historically, research on food production only looked at local ecological effects, such as manure runoff, according to the report, Horizon Organic Milk carbon footprint and summary Life Cycle Assessment results. But studying the cumulative environmental effects of food systems by both resources used and emissions released supports a global approach to environmental management, the report says.
"It informs dialogues as diverse as the policy relevance of product eco-labeling and the identification of key leverage points for reducing food system emissions."
The study concluded that one half-gallon of whole milk contributes the equivalent of 5.58 kilograms or 12.3 pounds of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
What does that mean? "Drinking one glass of Horizon Organic whole milk a day for a year is the [greenhouse gases] emission equivalent of driving 632 miles," Horizon Organic's website says.
The company's goal is to reduce those emissions, considered as the effects of driving, to zero miles, according to the website.
"Time is not on our side when it comes to climate change, and it's the responsibility of businesses to act with urgency and transparency," Deanna Bratter, head of Sustainable Development at Danone North America, said in a released statement. "Releasing Horizon Organic's carbon footprint is only the first step in this journey. We're now focusing on partnerships and investing in our family farmers to implement carbon reduction projects to meet our ambitious carbon positive by 2025 goal."
The company acknowledges, though, that it can't make enough changes to completely eliminate greenhouse gas emission.
"After reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions wherever we can, we’ll purchase U.S. carbon credits to offset what we can’t reduce. Together with our family farmer partners, we’re putting our hope for a brighter, more sustainable future into action," the website states.
(All illustrations provided by Horizon Organic.)
Two-thirds of the carbon footprint comes from the farms
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that in 2018, as much as 10% of the greenhouse gases generated in the United States came from farming and livestock.
Organic feed crops–14% of total carbon footprint
Footprint: Organic grasses and crops are grown on dairy farms, but organic fertilizers, the energy used for harvesting, and the fuel used to transport grasses and crops create greenhouse gases.
Action: Horizon is studying regenerative farming practices on 28,000 acres. Regenerative farming can boost soil health and lock carbon underground.
Footprint: Cows' digestive process is called enteric fermentation, which naturally creates methane, a greenhouse grass. The methane escapes into the air when cows burp.
Action: Horizon follows organic animal welfare standards, but it is exploring how it can reduce methane generation through the cows' diets.
Footprint: Manure emits different levels of methane and nitrous oxide—two greenhouse gases—depending on how it is stored, treated and applied to land.
Action: Horizon is working with its farmers to reduce the release of greenhouse gasses by improving manure storage and handling, investing in new equipment and adopting better practices.
Footprint: Milking cows requires using electricity for cooling, lighting, operating pumps, ventilation, feeding equipment and more. Grid electricity is generated by the burning of fossil fuels.
Action: Horizon has created a Farmer Investment Fund that allocates $15 million for farmers to pursue projects that improve energy efficiency.
The journey can be more fuel-efficient
Transporting milk from farm to the processing plant–9% of total carbon footprint
Footprint: Raw organic milk is collected from Horizon Organic's farmer partners and trucked to one of 10 milk processing plants that Danone owns. The raw milk travels an average of 776 miles to the plants.
Action: Horizon Organic will optimize its pickup routes to minimize the miles driven to the processing plants. This move will save fuel and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The plant uses renewable energy, mostly
Data from three manufacturing facilities that Danone owns—those in Dallas, Texas; Mount Crawford, Virginia; and Salt Lake City, Utah—was used in this study. Danone provided data on the plants' energy use, and Horizon-specific production emissions was based on revenue.
Processing milk–7% of total carbon footprint
Footprint: Danone, Horizon's parent company, owns the plants in which the raw milk is converted to cream and milk, pasteurized, formulated into whole milk, homogenized, cooled and packaged.
Action: Horizon Organic is committed to using only renewable electricity at the processing plants, by expanding renewable energy infrastructure and purchasing renewable energy certificates. These certificates track and assign ownership to the generation and use of renewable energy, according to the EPA.
Footprint: To make its half-gallon cartons, Horizon Organic uses paperboard that comes from responsibly managed forests, as certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. However, harvesting trees, processing pulp and transporting empty cartons to the processing plants require using energy and cause greenhouse gas emissions.
Action: The company's half-gallon cartons easily can be recycled already, but the goal is to make all of its packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.
Milk is transported to retail stores, then refrigerated
Supplying retailers and refrigerating dairy cases–9% of total carbon footprint
Footprint: Transporting processed milk to retail requires an average drive of 834 miles, according to Danone.
Action: Horizon Organic has signed on to the Business for Social Responsibility Sustainable Fuel Buyers principles, a pledge to accelerate the transitions to sustainable, low-carbon fuel and related technologies.
Footprint: For the study, Nicholson Consulting assumed that Horizon Organic whole milk is refrigerated at retail for three days it is sold. The consultancy used the EPA Energy Star Commercial Refrigerator Energy Calculator to determine the energy used.
Action: Horizon Organic did not specify any action on this footprint, but it's unlikely the company could control how retailers refrigerate products in their stores. (See 6 refrigeration secrets that will save your store money for information about efficient refrigeration for retail.)
Lastly, consumers take the milk home
Buying and drinking milk–5% of total carbon footprint
Footprint: Consumers' use of Horizon Organic milk includes driving to and from the store to purchase it, at-home refrigeration and wasted product.
Action: Horizon Organic whole milk in half-gallon cartons have a shelf life of 75 days, so none if it should go to waste, according to the company.
Footprint: Greenhouse gas emissions for disposing of any unused milk and the carton includes transporting waste, treating water and storing the cartons for recycling or the landfill.
Action: Horizon Organic cartons include How2Recycle instructions so consumers can recycle cartons correctly. The company also belongs to the Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit dedicated to improving recycling.
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Source: Horizon Organic