SourceMap: mapping the environmental footprint of consumer products

Posted on 05 August 2016.

The Sourcemap database reveals the origin of the products we buy every day and their incredible journey around the world.

Before arriving in your closet, your favorite cotton t-shirt has already traveled thousands of kilometers. From the United States, where the cotton seeds were harvested, to Pakistan, where the raw cotton was transformed into yarn; from Bangladesh or China, where the t-shirt was made to your favorite little downtown store... Your t-shirt is probably better traveled than you – taking a number of different winding and sometimes responsible paths...

Developed by Leonardo Bonanni as part of an MIT Media Lab (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) research project to measure the environmental footprint of products worldwide, Sourcemap is an open collaborative database that displays information in map form about the various stages of production of an item: its composition, the origin of the raw materials, the country where it is designed, manufactured and sold. All the important elements that establish not only a product’s quality but also its environmental and social impact.

Let’s take a look at the famous Bic Cristal ballpoint pen, sold by the French company Bic since 1950. We discover that the raw materials, such as tungsten carbide, are imported from the world's biggest producer countries and the plant in Marne-la-Vallée, east of Paris, not only assembles all the pens sold in Europe but also manufactures the different parts (ball, ink, etc.).

On the iPhone map (of course, much more complex), we discover all the countries involved in producing a Smartphone assembled in China. Among them: the Democratic Republic of Congo for coltan, and South Korea, India and even France for certain components.

A Wikipedia of the industrial value chain where anyone can publish information, Sourcemap aims to ensure transparency about product traceability and data sharing, and so allow buyers - consumers "who look beyond the function, price and beauty of a product", activists and manufacturers - to make more informed choices.

There are still questions about the source of the information, which is not always stated - annual sustainability reports published by the companies themselves, data from NGOs and investigations by journalists, or simple assumptions made by users. Sourcemap will need to find legitimacy before it can be a credible consumer action tool.