Fire / Feu

Le véritable coût d’un cheeseburger

À peu près toutes les décisions d’un consommateur ont des retombées environnementales. On pourrait facilement considérer comme insignifiantes les décisions individuelles d’achat.

Toutefois, ce sont toutes ces petites décisions personnelles qui commencent à écraser les systèmes de survie écologique de la planète.

Le but d’étudier le véritable coût d’un cheeseburger est d’encourager les gens à penser aux décisions qu’ils prennent et de commencer à incorporer des facteurs environnementaux dans leurs décisions.

The True Cost of a

Prof. Raymond P. Cote
School for Resource and Environmental Studies
Dalhousie University  
July 2003

almost every decision a consumer makes has environmental implications. And as consumers we are often insulated from the impacts of our decisions and our choices. After all, it is the companies that extract the metals, or process the oil, or manufacture the electronic products that are causing the environmental problems. As an individual consumer the impact of an individual purchase can easily be disregarded as insignificant. However, it is the cumulative impact of all these little decisions and purchases that are beginning to overwhelm the planet's ecological life support systems.

One tool that has been developed to begin to understand the broader implications of materials and products in the past ten years is life cycle analysis (LCA). It essentially adopts a biological analogy recognizing that products come from somewhere (the cradle) and end up somewhere else, usually back in the environment in whole or in part (the grave). Ray Cote, who teaches a course on business and the environment at Dalhousie University's Faculty of Management, has used this technique to enable students to appreciate the implications of decisions that producers and consumers make on a day to day basis.

In looking around for a product that most students can relate to he found some teaching materials that had been compiled by Tom Gladwin, then a Professor of Finance at New York University. The materials were background for an investigation of the life cycle of the cheeseburger. It turns out that this is something that students can really get their teeth into, so to speak! There are three big questions that cause some consternation when students begin investigating the life cycle of a cheeseburger. The first is setting the boundaries for the discussion. Where is the beef raised? Do we include the bun and wheat grown to produce it? What about the condiments? Should transportation be included? Should we include health implications? Etc.

The second question is getting a handle on the aspects of the life cycle that interact with the environment in a significant way and attempting to quantify the emissions and impacts. The third question relates to assigning costs to the impacts. This is clearly not an easy exercise and it is difficult if not impossible to set costs for many impacts. If one clears rainforest to raise cattle and species are lost, what is that species worth? Is the real price of water reflected in what we pay for it at the tap?

The point of the exercise about the true cost of a cheeseburger is to get people thinking about the decisions they make and to begin to incorporate environmental factors into those decisions. Some students have been very good at digging up information and estimating costs. In the classes at Dalhousie, the suggested true cost has ranged from $1.10 to $929.27 over a five year period. In most cases it is in excess of $10.00. Would they still buy a cheeseburger if it reflected the true cost? A few students have decided to forego cheeseburgers as a result of the exercise for ethical as well as environmental reasons.

"The LCA of a cheeseburger provides an interesting perspective into the true costs, both environmental and financial, of a commonly consumed product. As an MBA student studying environmental management and finance, I think it is essential that future business leaders include environmental concerns as a necessary component of good management. The exercise in Professor Côté's class helped to identify many of the environmental and economic challenges that we face as a society. Being educated about new tools and techniques that can be used to meet these challenges is exciting, and this exercise does just that. This exercise has changed the way I feel about the mass production of beef, and the environmental, economic and social impacts that result. As a personal choice, I have stopped eating beef." - Aaron Booth, MBA Student at Dalhousie University

"One person can make a difference - this is just one of the many lessons that partaking in the lifecycle of a cheeseburger exercise has taught me. As a result, I have chosen not to eat beef, and I know that I no longer contribute to the many negative social and environmental impacts that come from the mass production of beef. As a consumer, I am sending a powerful message to beef producers that current production methods are not acceptable. This exercise has contributed to my success as a business graduate student in that I take a holistic approach to any situation and can more readily understand and access the true risks and benefits of the projects in which I am involved. I am thankful I had the opportunity to participate in this exercise in Professor Côté's class and encourage other educators to use this exercise in their own classrooms." - Samantha Hill, MBA Student at Dalhousie University

Teachers interested in pursuing this as a possible class exercise will be able to find materials on the web by searching life cycle of a hamburger or cheeseburger.