Carbon labels - help or hindrance?

14th September 2011


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  • Retail and wholesale ,
  • Stewardship ,
  • Life Cycle Analysis ,
  • Ecodesign ,
  • Products



Lucy Yates and Harry Morrison debate whether carbon labels on products are really helping consumers to be more sustainable

Lucy Yates
Sustainability expert at Consumer Focus

The need to act on climate change has driven an interest in increasing consumer demand for low-carbon products, thereby encouraging producers to cut carbon emissions and bringing about more sustainable consumption. Carbon labelling, as one element of this, is an example of the belief that the way to influence what customers buy is through environmental product information. However, the proof that consumers act on this information when deciding what to buy is limited.

When considering labelling as a way to influence consumer purchasing behaviour, we forget how people actually shop. On a typical weekly supermarket shop, we do not spend much time analysing what we will buy. On average, we spend just 16 seconds in a supermarket aisle – that’s in the whole aisle, not choosing one product.

Shoppers make decisions based on price, brand, promotions, habits and shelf positioning, among other things. It is unrealistic to think that anyone, except for a small group of dedicated green consumers, will spend time comparing the carbon footprints of products.

This is not to say that labelling can never be useful. The A–G labels on white goods are an excellent example that brought about market transformation. However, this was achieved through the joint action of regulators, retailers and manufacturers.

Regulators implemented standards and retailers didn’t want to stock poor-performing products. This sent a signal to manufacturers that they needed to develop more energy-efficient products. Consumers could then choose between products that were already more energy efficient. A virtuous circle was formed.

This is not the case with carbon labelling, which puts the burden solely on consumers. Labels mean they have to navigate their way through complex environmental information to differentiate low- from high-carbon products.

Those in favour of carbon labelling must consider what they are trying to achieve. If it is to bring about successful consumer behaviour change, we must start from where consumers are, not where we want them to be.

A gramme of carbon dioxide is not a metric understood by consumers – people don’t have a concept of whether 75g of CO2 per packet of crisps is a lot or a little, or even what a gramme of CO2 is. More thought must be given as to what would be useful for consumers, moving beyond the overused solution of a labelling scheme.

Carbon footprinting can definitely work for companies to improve the carbon performance of their supply chains, and carbon labelling is a great way to help companies tell the wider world about what they are doing. But as a way to get consumers to choose low-carbon products, the evidence for carbon labelling is sadly lacking.

Harry Morrison
Director of certification at the Carbon Trust

Labelling schemes can take decades to become established on product packaging. However, research has shown that the Carbon Trust’s Carbon Reduction Label, which helps shoppers to spot brands that are measuring and reducing their products’ carbon footprints, is growing steadily in reach and influence.

The Centre for Retail Research estimates the total UK sales of green and organic merchandise in 2009 at £8 billion, while the total value of goods sold bearing the Carbon Reduction Label reached more than £3 billion. According to the centre, the label – which was launched in 2007 and is now used by a range of companies, including Dyson, Kingsmill, Tesco and Walkers Crisps – has established itself more quickly than the green and organic market.

The label’s success is testament to the fact that carbon literacy is on the rise among consumers and that brands are responding.

Almost three-quarters of respondents to a recent Defra survey said they were familiar with the term “carbon footprint”, meanwhile research from marketing organisation Vanson Bourne into carbon-conscious buying habits revealed that 47% of shoppers said that they were more likely to choose low-carbon-labelled goods over non-labelled ones and 21% said that they would pay more for products bearing a carbon-related label.

Of course, not all of the best consumer intentions translate into action, but more people want to live low-carbon lifestyles and carbon-labelling initiatives enable that willingness to translate into action.

Some brands also use the Carbon Reduction Label to display advice for consumers on how to use a product in a way least harmful to the environment. Big savings can be made in cutting energy wasted in the home by cooking food with a lid on your saucepan or washing at 30°C, for example.

This type of guidance is understood and appreciated by consumers; the Vanson Bourne research found that 70% of people are in favour of following simple energy-saving advice on product packaging to reduce their carbon footprints.

Carbon is a complex issue and there is still much to be done to help consumers understand the footprints of the goods they buy.

But, despite the critics who argue that labelling is too complex or that there is insufficient consumer understanding, awareness and demand for low-carbon goods is steadily rising.

Our shopping choices drive a large proportion of our personal carbon footprints. Carbon labelling not only raises awareness of this issue and empowers consumers, it also encourages brands to focus on their supply chains and the savings they can make as well as innovating to develop new low-carbon goods and services. It is early days yet, but carbon labelling is a vital step in building a low-carbon economy.


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