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Much of the climate change conversation is focused on the impacts of actions we take every day — choosing vehicles that run on low-carbon electricity or green hydrogen instead of gasoline or diesel, shifting to electricity from less emissions-intensive sources, or using products made of recycled content and/or that are recyclable.

However, shifting to products and services that generate lower emissions while they are in use tackles only part of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions puzzle — what’s referred to as operational emissions. The other part of the equation — and one that Cisco has also been working to reduce through how we design, manufacture, ship and manage our products at end of life — is what’s referred to as embodied emissions. 

Embodied emissions are the GHG emissions generated when manufacturing a product (or the components that go into a product), when transporting it and when it is treated at the end of its useful life. These emissions are already part of it before you buy and/or use it [1].

A key focus area for many technology companies is to address the operational emissions of devices in use today by improving the energy efficiency of these products. However, where companies have the greatest ability to affect emissions is through the design, manufacturing, transportation (including reverse logistics) and reusability/recyclability of products. To make a product with a lower carbon impact over its lifecycle, we have to understand what makes up the embodied emissions in a product and how we can design or adjust the ways we make and transport it to reduce emissions.

A not-so-small step for humankind: quantifying a product’s embodied carbon emissions.

The full scope of emissions generated by the production, transportation, use and end of life of a product can be quantified through a lifecycle assessment (LCA). This involves assessing what emissions resulted from manufacturing a product: from extracting or manufacturing its base materials (e.g., plastic for computer cases, battery materials like lithium), to the share of energy used in factories to transform materials into components and then assemble components into that single product. Emissions can also be generated when producing packaging for a product, when transporting it to the end-user and from treatment at the end of its useful life.

In a way, measuring operational carbon is likely more straightforward — based on measurable metrics such as source and quantity of electricity used, gallons of fuel consumed, and the emission factors associated with them. By comparison, assessing embodied carbon of a product requires a range of activities:

  • Defining the system boundaries, i.e., which process steps are included and excluded;
  • Using a recognized methodology for the collection of data and emissions quantification — for example, guidance from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (i.e., Product Lifecycle Accounting and Reporting Standard), Publicly Available Specification (PAS) 2050, the ISO14040-44 standards or the ISO14067 standard;
  • Collecting data on the quantity of materials used and energy consumption at each lifecycle stage, as well as the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) emission factor for each material and process to quantify total CO2e emissions; and
  • Making sure the data for the chosen assessment is consistent (e.g., functional unit, timescale).

Once you have that information, you can quantify the embodied carbon emissions in a product and start the real work — using that information to identify ways to reduce these emissions.

The right data can point the way to targeted emissions reductions.

With a rich understanding of a product’s embodied carbon emissions, product designers can then potentially make choices that reduce that product’s embodied emissions moving forward. During product design, companies can consider substituting lower-carbon materials into products. That substitution can take the form of using the same material(s) produced in a less emissions-intensive manner (i.e., by using recycled material, more energy efficient industrial processes and/or lower-carbon energy at the factory level) or by using an alternate material that is less emissions intensive to produce.

In addition, manufacturers can optimize processes and implement design changes to reduce the overall use of materials and the amount of waste generated during manufacturing. Embodied emissions can also be reduced by using more energy efficient manufacturing processes and technologies, and using low-carbon sources of energy for these processes. The impact of transportation too can be reduced by implementing changes such as using low-carbon modes of transport and fuel types.

Closing the loop.

Cisco’s team has been hard at work performing its own lifecycle assessments and product carbon footprints assessments to account for the greenhouse gas emissions from its manufacturing, transportation, and end-of-life treatment for its products. Information about these processes can be found on Cisco’s ESG Hub.

Manufacturing, transport, and end-of-life emissions can make up roughly a quarter of total emissions in Cisco products [2], which is why it’s critical to account for and work to reduce emissions not resulting from product use. Calculating the impacts of Cisco products enables our teams to not only understand the lifecycle carbon impacts of our products, but to model the impacts of various design, material and process changes that can be made to our products.

Cisco has a public goal for 100% of new Cisco products and packaging to incorporate Circular Design Principles by FY25. Cisco has identified 25 Circular Design Principles, organized across the 5 focus areas below. These Principles play a pivotal role in enabling the reduction of GHG emissions across the lifecycles of Cisco products, especially their embodied carbon emissions. Visit the ESG Hub for more details on Cisco’s goal and its Circular Design Principles.A graphic showing Cisco's circular design focus areas

Cisco also has programs to encourage product returns, reuse, and recycling to reduce emissions from product end of use. When products are returned to Cisco, we evaluate their condition and eligibility for reuse. If the product is in usable condition or repairable and there is demand for the product, it undergoes a testing and/or repair process to meet Cisco’s quality standards. One of the primary goals of product return process is to redeploy as much material as possible, thus reducing the production of virgin materials and subsequent emissions.

  • Product returns: Various programs offered for customers to return products back to Cisco to ensure that they follow the highest value end of use pathway.
  • Product reuse: Reuse is always a top priority. Returned devices that can be reused are remanufactured, refurbished, or repaired, and resold by Cisco Refresh, or used by Cisco service operations or our internal labs.
  • Product recycling: Any products that are not reusable are harvested for components that can be reused, and remaining materials are recycled where possible by one of our authorized recyclers. We currently have two contracted e-scrap recyclers. Each recycler uses both company-owned facilities and subcontracted recyclers to provide global recycling coverage.

Please visit the ESG Hub for details on the various returns and reuse programs offered.

Calculating product embodied carbon emissions is critical for Cisco to support our customers in quantifying the carbon impact of the products they purchase, and it also provides Cisco with information that is important in our efforts to reduce the GHG emissions associated with our products.

[1] Carbon Herald, https://carbonherald.com/what-is-embodied-carbon-and-why-does-it-matter/

[2]This is based on lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions quantified for Cisco ICT products using global electricity-use emission factors. Visit the ESG Hub (“Environmental Footprint of our Products”) for more details.


Sneha Balasubramanian

Sustainability Specialist

Chief Sustainability Office