Companies are rapidly hopping on the “green” bandwagon, hoping to entice increasingly eco-conscious customers with biodegradable packaging and small carbon footprints. But how can executives and consumers be completely sure which corporations are the most earth-friendly?

Simple: Turn to, a user-generated visualization of a product’s supply chain and resultant carbon footprint.

Originally conceived and funded as part of Leonard Bonanni’s 2007 PhD project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, SourceMap represents the future of environmentally friendly consumption, one based on transparency and accountability.

“Basically,” explains Bonanni, “the idea came from the fact that people want to make sustainable choices, but there’s no place for them to go if they want to investigate products and services.” The site, then, acts as a “public good mission to teach sustainability and understand supply chains.”

To get the project off the ground, Bonanni and his advisers at MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, Hiroshi Ishii and Chris Csikszentmihalyi, first focused on breaking down select commodities’ trade routes, which can often be quite convoluted. Electronics, for example, can contain components from over ten countries. Thus, Bonanni and his team started by reverse engineering products to track their origins, often by simply calling companies to find a certain item’s origins.

Then, with a trail mapped out, says Bonanni, “I needed to break the problem into environmental impact,” like how much carbon shipping and packing sends in the atmosphere, and ending with a “lifestyle assessment based on the making, shipping and throwing away” of specific merchandise.

Of course Bonanni knew we live in a digital world, and wanted to create a visual guide for easily distracted public. To that end, he reached out to graphic designer David Zorg, who drew maps laying out a product’s trade route and emissions. Now customers can look at the guide for a Giant TCR ‘04 bicycle, and see its 21 components result in a carbon footprint of 82.01 kg, or Apple’s iPod, which has seven assembly spots, and emits 9.84 kg of carbon along the way.

Three years later, SourceMap, a forthcoming 501(c)3 still funded by MIT grants, has evolved into more than just a research product aimed at consumers. It’s a resource for companies, as well.

“The site was originally for small businesses,” says Bonanni,” but then larger companies came forward and said they are looking for tools to discuss supply chains.”

Mega chain Office Depot and sustainability-minded New Leaf Paper teamed up with SourceMap and UK-based nonprofit Carbon Trust earlier this year to map out the impact of paper products. Now New Leaf Paper’s commodities come with a SourceMap barcode so that shoppers can track their paper’s trail.

By researching and promoting a smaller environmental impact, SourceMap also gives companies bragging rights, yes, but those rights can also translate into financial benefit.

“Sourcemap has helped attract additional business from environmentally aware customers who appreciate the steps the companies are taking to try and either off set or reduce there carbon footprint,” said John MacKenzie, development manager at Scotland’s Highlands and Islands Enterprise, a governmental group that fosters socially and ecologically responsible businesses and helped sponsor Bonanni’s project in 2008.

The work, he says, paid off, and has helped regional companies in terms of both promotional power and accountability.

“SourceMap has certainly improved the visibality of the supply chain in the companies that are using it here,” insisted MacKenzie, before citing a hotel that started planting trees to offset guests’ carbon footprints. “In the long term, mass use of this tool would help to improve any region, and I we will continue to promote SourceMap.”

He continued, “I certainly think it can be the social driver to get people to think tabout the impact that supply chains have on our environment, and businesses to look at themselves through the eye of the consumer.”

The Scottish government and Office Depot can’t be SourceMap’s only source of marketing, of course, and Bonanni says that research papers and lectures, like September’s Opportunity Green business conference, have proven to be a valuable source for his project’s growth.

Indeed: After seeing Bonanni appearance at a Net Impact panel called “Carbon Mapping: Radical Transparency and Truth in Advertising,” blogger Nick Aster at Triple Pundit made his own map of Fiji bottled water’s supply chain, unaware SourceMap had already predicted interest in the company. The site and the public are working in tandem, clearly driven by the same concerns.

As with other up-and-coming projects, like MakerBot, SourceMap relies heavily on people like Aster and other green-friendly citizens to help build up its open source content, thereby helping guarantee consumers the most ecologically sound information possible.

In terms of catering to interested businesses, Bonanni and his team of twenty, mostly volunteers familiar with supply chains or programming, are developing free or low cost application programming interfaces that will make it easier for companies to “optimize their carbon footprint.”

Taken as an entire package — accountability, transparency and responsibility — SourceMap strives to achieve the piece of advice Bonanni cites as his guiding light. “John Maeda, the President of RISD, once told me, ‘Design for trust. How can you make something work if people don’t trust you?’,” Bonanni recalls.

He continued, “People need to know the good and bad of products.” And SourceMap makes it that much easier.

Behind the Scenes

Startups need tools to organize themselves. Here’s what uses behind the scenes.

  • Customer Relationship Management: 37 Signals’ Highrise
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