National Geographic magazine

Photograph by Megan Seldon, National Geographic

What is a life cycle assessment?

A life cycle assessment (LCA) is an attempt to capture and measure all the carbon emissions associated with a product from "cradle to grave"—from the sourcing of its raw materials all the way through its manufacture, use, and disposal.

Why do a life cycle assessment?

The purpose of performing an LCA for a product is to understand where the carbon emissions in its production come from. Determining as accurately as possible the total emissions associated with the creation, use, and disposal of a product helps to identify where carbon reduction is needed most urgently or would be most effective.

The life cycle assessment of National Geographic magazine:

The National Geographic Society initiated an LCA on the National Geographic magazine (NGM) late in 2008, completing the study in June 2009. The goal was to identify the carbon emissions of creating the magazine content, as well as the emissions of our supply chain of vendors and service providers that all factor into the creation and delivery of a physical magazine to our members and the marketplace and finally, disposal of the magazine. A comprehensive overview of the LCA can be found in the International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment.

To be comprehensive, the LCA had to look into all the processes involved with producing a story and a physical magazine including (floor space and energy to maintain staffs for) story development, editing, advertising and sales, forestry management and harvesting, chemical suppliers, paper manufacturing, transportation to the printing facility, printing and binding, distribution by truck, rail and the Postal Services into the home, and waste services. [See Figure ES-1 from LCA, included below]

There is not yet a widely accepted international protocol for performing such a thorough LCA, so in partnership with our primary suppliers of paper, printing services and distribution, we hired a certified third-party LCA practitioner [Harmony Environmental] to guide us through the process.

Our goals were to end up with a document that:

- Was as comprehensive as possible
- Was as transparent as possible
- Had clearly defined and logical boundaries
- Complied with best practices
- Was well documented and credible
- Would be peer reviewed
- Could be audited
- Could serve as a template for others wishing to do similar studies

We believe that our final report is the most thorough and comprehensive LCA yet done on a magazine.

What did the life cycle assessment of National Geographic magazine reveal?

- The average copy of National Geographic magazine has a carbon footprint of 1.82 pounds (0.82 kilograms) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent
- The average year’s worth of National Geographic magazines has a footprint of 21.84 pounds (9.84 kilograms) of CO2 equivalent or (9.84 kg). This is the equivalent CO2 output of burning a gallon of gas.

The chart below shows the boundaries that we identified in what is counted in this LCA.

The chart below shows a breakdown of our magazine emissions by process. It is stated in global warming potential (GWP) of the greenhouse gases (GHG) emitted.

The chart below shows the GWP breakdown by GHG and by percentage of recycled fiber content.

The next step we are taking in this process is to develop a list of options to try to reduce our carbon footprint, and then to develop a strategy for implementing those that are practical and effective.