Is there a future for carbon footprint labelling in the UK?

Carton of Tesco milk with Carbon Reduction Label
Tesco has decided to phase out Carbon Reduction Labels on its products

Supermarket giant Tesco is to phase-out Carbon Reduction Labels on its products

The media frenzy that erupted as Tesco admitted having second-thoughts on carbon footprint labels may have inflicted lasting damage on a once promising sector

Back in 2007, when former CEO Terry Leahy promised to bring in carbon labels for all Tesco products everything seemed rosy. Soon after, the company announced a trial of the Carbon Trust’s Carbon Reduction Label, promising a ‘revolution in green consumption’. Consumers would be able to know from the label the amount of greenhouse gases used during the life of each product. 

Fast-forward to 2012 and Tesco has now decided to drop the Carbon Trust label, putting in doubt its entire future in carbon labelling. The chain denies it has given up on carbon labels, saying it is simply “re-evaluating” what works for its customers. 

If a big name like Tesco is thinking twice, what does that mean for the future of carbon labelling? In the current economic climate, price may be taking precedence over ecological impact. But, it is still debatable whether or not carbon labels are changing consumer behaviour.

An April 2011 government report found one-third of people avoided seasonal fruits and vegetables because of cost. And that price was the biggest barrier when it came to purchasing free-range eggs and chicken. Consumers claimed they were interested in where their food came from but often had difficulty deciphering labels.

‘Seven in every ten people say that buying sustainable fish is important, but only 30 per cent say that they buy sustainable fish, because a third of people aren’t sure how to choose sustainable fish products and are confused by labelling,’ said the report.

Despite the gloom around Tesco, The Carbon Trust, who provides certification for companies working to reduce their carbon footprints, says carbon labels aren’t going anywhere soon and have been ‘licensed for use in 19 countries around the world.’

‘We are clearly disappointed that Tesco has decided to phase out over time the use of the label on cost grounds,’ said a statement from the company, who still hopes to work with Tesco in the future.

What about other supermarkets?

Tesco’s press statement paints a more worrying scenario. In an indication of financial pressures the supermarket giant currently faces, it says it is working to develop a carbon labelling scheme that is ‘faster and cheaper to operate.’ The company also appeared to point the blame at many of its competitor retailers and manufacturers for not following their lead – effectively leaving them out on a limb.

Carbon label trailblazer Walkers was the first company to jump onboard, placing the footprint labels on its crisps back in 2007. Today, remains committed to the labels, but echoes Tesco’s concerns about the schemes lack of popularity.

‘Although we've not seen the take up we'd have liked across industry, we still support carbon labelling as a way of helping consumers and business to understand and reduce their carbon emissions,’ says Martyn Seal, director for sustainability in Europe at PepsiCo, which owns the Walkers brand. 

However, the decline of carbon labels might not be a complete setback for raising consumer awareness about environmental issues.

Other food chains have chosen a different route when it comes to sustainability. Marks and Spencer’s ambitious Plan A sets a goal to be the world’s most sustainable major retailer by 2015, and though they have worked with Carbon Trust, they have chosen not to adopt the carbon footprint labels. 

Mike Barry, M&S’s head of sustainable business, says their customers are keen to shop with stores they know are committed to sustainability, but prefer not to be inundated with information. That’s why the company has chosen to use simple brand reassurance – all their coffee and teas are fair-trade, their eggs are free-range and their fish are from a sustainable source – instead of labelling, which he says most time-crunched customers don’t have time to read.

‘At the moment carbon wording is probably a level of technical knowledge that is too much for them across 35,000 different product lines,’ he says. ‘It’s not to say that in 10-15 years time we might have the technology and the customer appetite for them, we just think here and now customers want simple brand reassurance that we’re doing the vast majority on their behalf.’

M&S also plans to be a carbon-neutral business by 2012, a goal Barry says they’re on track to reach this year, whereas Tesco aims to be a zero-carbon business by 2050, having already opened three zero-carbon stores. Waitrose’s strategy involves ‘treading lightly’ and aims for 15 per cent absolute reduction in operational CO2e emissions by 2020/21. While Sainsbury’s 20 by 20 Sustainability Plan sets a goal for absolute carbon reduction of 50 per cent by 2030.

Carbon labelling is not just for the benefit of consumers, The Carbon Trust says, the scheme also encourages the companies and manufacturers themselves to develop new low carbon initiatives. According to the Trust’s research, 45 per cent of shoppers would ‘shun’ brands that don’t make an effort to reduce the carbon footprints of their products, and 21 per cent would pay more for carbon labelled goods.

Despite such apparent interest, can labels designed to influence consumption really pave the way for a sustainable future?

Social psychology suggests that just because people know their choices will be harmful to the environment does not necessarily mean they will change their behaviour.

Tom Crompton, a change strategist for the WWF, says we should think bigger and examine the drivers of cultural values that influence our behaviour. Such values include community, justice, broadmindedness and environmental protection, to name a few. Engaging one of these intrinsic values increases the likelihood that people will adopt others. 

Crompton says companies need to, therefore, not just look at their carbon footprints, but also their ‘mind prints’.

‘It is important for companies to increase the information they’re making available to consumers and to begin to look at the immediate material footprint impacts of what they’re doing.

'But ultimately we can’t foresee the scale of response which is going to be needed for a challenge like climate change without beginning to ask more fundamental questions about what matters to us as a society,’ he says. ‘And what matters to us as a society is shaped importantly by the activity of the private sector.’

From advertising to lobbying to how they treat their employees, Crompton says companies can ‘indirectly strengthen a set of values that undermine public concern about environment.’

And while knowing the carbon footprint of a bag of crisps is not insignificant, it is this kind of piecemeal approach that Crompton worries will keep us from making the transformative changes needed for lasting sustainability.

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