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Products’ carbon footprints easier to track with MIT grad’s start-up

By Karen Weintraub
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2011

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The blue cheese was from Marion. The heavy cream came from Lee. Most of the produce, from Pepperell.

Robert Harris is so proud of the local products he uses in his catering that he adorned tables at a recent event with a map showing where the dinner ingredients were grown or made.

“It’s a great tool to demonstrate to our clients the care that we take in sourcing,’’ said Harris, chef and owner of Season to Taste Catering and The Table, a 10-seat restaurant, both in Cambridge.

The map he used was produced with Sourcemap, a local start-up that combines mapping software with carbon footprint information to help people track the carbon used to produce the things they eat, use, and wear.

Its original vision was as a YouTube of the supply chain, allowing people to post supplier information and share it with their friends. Now, founder and chief executive Leonardo Bonanni, who created Sourcemap as his PhD thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is moving to emphasize its commercial side.

Sourcemap, he said, “is for when companies want to communicate transparently to the consumer.’’

And not just small companies. Office Depot is using the mapping software to track the carbon footprint of its EnviroCopy paper, which is described as being 100 percent recycled.

The company offers a social network, mapping software to turn addresses into visuals, calculating tools that translate distance shipped into tons of carbon used, and barcode technology that can be placed on a product and scanned with a cellphone, generating sourcing information.

Now, for instance, another caterer or restaurant could use a publicly available map created by Season to Taste to identify a local food supplier. Harris says it makes him happy that the go-local message is spreading, not fearful that his competition will be able to learn his secrets.

Bonanni’s goal is for the site to be populated with information about suppliers and users all over the world, so customers can learn where, for instance, their sneaker parts are coming from, and companies can keep tabs on the carbon footprint of various potential suppliers.

“There’s a growing segment of consumers that care about eco-certification and social sustainability,’’ he said. “With smartphones and mobile Web apps, people are expecting to scan products and learn more about them. [The point of Sourcemap] is to tell a story about the product.’’

Sourcemap just switched its online domain from a .org to a .com. Bonanni says it is like Sourcemap is graduating from MIT - just as he did in June. The switch will allow paying customers to manage the environmental impacts of their supply chains.

For Office Depot, the decision to use Sourcemap began about nine months ago, when customers in Boston asked the company to disclose how much carbon was produced in the manufacturing of its paper products.

The company knew the industry average for paper based on a widely used tool called the paper calculator, but didn’t know how much carbon was produced with any particular paper product it sold, said Yalmaz Siddiqui, director of environmental strategy for the company, which is based in Boca Raton, Fla.

It has taken a huge amount of work during six to nine months to start tracking that information. And now that the company is beginning to get a clearer picture of its paper’s provenance, it wants to “tell a story’’ about it via Sourcemap, Siddiqui said.

Being forced to think about the entire lifespan of the paper - from its first use until it is thrown into the trash a second time - has pushed Office Depot to think harder about its sourcing.

“In some ways, it’s forcing us to go back further into the supply chain than we ever have,’’ Siddiqui said. “We might have known where the paper mill is, but we didn’t know where the pulp mill was, or where the fiber came from in the pulp mill. We now have a very deep understanding of our paper’s life cycle.’’

They are still checking their numbers, but Siddiqui said he is now confident that Office Depot’s 100 percent recycled paper has a lower carbon footprint than either the industry average or virgin paper. He expects to present that story on Office Depot’s website by early next year, using Sourcemap, and would eventually like to add other products, he said.

For now, Sourcemap only collects information on carbon, but Bonanni says he would like to track water usage, toxic materials used and released, land use change (such as forests turned into farmland), and a measure of worker quality of life.

The company is currently funded by its paying customers, and has been supported by MIT‘s Media Lab, Center for Civic Media, and Center for Transportation and Logistics.

Bonanni expects to solicit outside investors in about 18 months, when he predicts Sourcemap will be able to scale up to a global level.

Karen Weintraub can be reached at Karen@KarenWeintraub.com.