While the concept of an ecological backpack in German writing often tends to be equated into the English calculation of the ‘ecological footprint’, these are two different yet related concepts.
The ecological footprint is calculated based on the theoretical territorial or geographical needs for a product or service and thus based on a footprint in hectares, and the actual German equivalent translates to ‘der ökologische Fußabdruck’.
The concept of an ecological backpack was created by Schidt-Bleek in 1994 in Germany, in order to explain his concept of MIPS better to people. This term ‘Material-Input per Unit of Service’ presupposes that goods are usually used for services and that the backpack thus needs to be calculated for these services as well. According to Schmidt-Bleek, the term MIPS is the only indicator for how much use one can draw out of a specific number of resources.
Statistically, each industrial product carries approximately 30 kilograms of nature on average, which means, that – according to the Lexikon der Nachhaltigkeiti – less than ten percent of the materials moved from nature ultimately become useful industrial products.
The calculation of the ecological backpack includes the consideration of all steps in production through the supply chain, the geographic and transport aspects, as well as low-wage countries, the use and maintenance (e.g. the wash cycles of a pair of jeans) of the product as well as the waste of it (throwing it into a donation box or even the garbage truck picking it up). It is ‘the sum of all needed natural resources from the extraction until the ready industrial material or product or the serviceable product in terms of tons of nature versus tons of product, deducting the empty weight of the material or product’.ii
In contrast, the ‘ecological footprint’ was invented by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees in the 1990s, as a concept with which they wanted to research whether earth would even be large enough to satisfy our needs. Our use of water or energy, for instance, is then calculated into the biologically active land and water mass needed for our ‘use of nature’ as a person, company, or region.
This footprint encompasses different areas of calculation, most importantly:
- energy space (fossil energies)
- settlement space (for houses, infrastructure, production plants)
- agriculturally cultivated areas (food production for humans, animals, but also clothing or industrial lubricants)
- meadows and pastures (for our animals and all emergent products)
- forest (for construction wood or paper production)
- ocean space (animals for food, technological use, mining, etc.)
Germany here ranks in the middle fields, as it is calculated with 5.09 hectares for each German, thus requiring 2.8 earths to satisfy our needs, if everybody lived like we did in Germany.iii In comparison, the ecological backpack calculates the kilogram use of nature among comparable products and not in relation to one person’s or company’s rate of consumption. Without water use, the ecological backpack of wood is 6kg, aluminium ranges at 61kg, and cotton at 70kg, with gold being the highest amount at 500,000kg.iv
Due to widely spread supply chains with often difficult pathways to follow, the ecological backpack can only be calculated as an estimate, especially since most often water as a needed product is left out of the calculation. Non-replenishable raw materials like coal or wood, as well as the ‘expense’ of farming the ground and the air that is spent through burning are considered, however.
The ecological backpack tries to essentially answer how much of nature needs to be invested into a product of consumption. It might then be possible to estimate the effect on one’s environmental footprint, although the measurement units are different. The larger the ecological backpack is, the more environmentally damaging the product is.
Schmidt-Bleek himself has suggested a checklist for product producers to plan or improve a product, as he understood his term and formula as a gateway towards a solution for using nature’s resources more intelligently. His suggestion is a dematerialization of the economy and thus reducing consumption to an amount that does not cause long-term damage to the ecosphere within the next decades.
This could be done though ‘radical dematerialization’ which proposes a halving of all global resource use. Schmidt-Bleek has founded the ‘Factor 10-Club’, which wants a dematerialization by the factor 10 in the next decades, according to the Carnoules Declaration in October 1994.v
The final term to mention is the ‘invisible backpack’, which has been established as a term for the hidden flows of resources, most often in the import of goods from foreign countries, where waste products from production are left behind. The resources might thus become invisible in the balance sheets of the import country as ecological burdens are moved outside the calculation.vi
i Aachener Stiftung Kathy Beys. „Ökologischer Rucksack.“ https://www.nachhaltigkeit.info/artikel/schmidt_bleek_mips_konzept_971.htm> Last updated on October 23, 2015. Accessed on August 1, 2023.
Written on July 24, 2019. Accessed on July 5, 2023.
iii “Der ökologische Rucksack. Der ökologische Fußabdruck.“ https://cdn.website-start.de/proxy/apps/aek2oo/uploads/gleichzwei/instances. Accessed on July 16, 2023. p. 4
iv Ibidem. p. 2.
v Aachener Stiftung Kathy Beys. p. 1.
vi Aachener Stiftung Kathy Beys. „Der unsichtbare Rucksack.“ https://www.nachhaltigkeit.info/artikel/der_unsichtbare_rucksack_1883.htm Last updated on February 10, 2015. Accessed on August 1, 2023.