Carbon labels: Every Little Helps or TMI?

01Feb12

So Tesco has announced that it is going to phase out carbon footprint labeling on its products .

The company pledged  in 2007 to attach carbon footprint labels to all of its products “so that consumers can compare products in the same way they compare salt content and calorie counts.”

We know that nutrition labels are just not enough to get us to choose the celery stick over the chocolate digestive, so it is not surprising that the calorie counting approach to emission reduction has not worked.

So why did Tesco, who generally seem very smart at knowing how to please most of the people most of the time, and make money doing it, become a carbon label pioneer?

In 2008 Tesco’s director of government affairs and corporate responsibility David North likened the move to the first translation of the bible from Latin into English by William Tyndale.

Perhaps. But, parallels between Terry Leahy and 15th Century Martyrs aside,  it seems more like part of the impulse, which is strong throughout the CSR movement, that if we can’t figure out how solve a problem the best thing to do is measure like crazy.

Carbon labelling 2.0 was also a reaction to the overly simplified ‘food miles’ approach of sticking an airplane label on airfreighted products or avoiding food imports, which was criticised for discriminating against food producers in poor countries – where tomatoes grown under the tropical sun could have a lower carbon footprint than those grown in heated greenhouses but with less far to transport.

The problem with carbon labeling on consumer products (as with much reporting of sustainability metrics) is that it is all numerator and no denominator. We have no way of knowing if it is good or bad, and how important it is (this is the tortured question of ‘sustainability context’  in terms of sustainability reporting)

So the label tells me that the equivalent of 800g of carbon was emitted by the cows, bottling plant, refrigeration and delivery of my 4 pints of milk. Is that good or bad? Who knows. If I buy skimmed instead of semi-skimmed that could reduce the emissions to 700g, and if I bought full-fat the emissions would be 900g. Do those 100g matter? Does the planet notice? (and why don’t I get a discount for ‘donating all that cream to Tescos to sell back to me?)

Tesco’s own ’10 green tips’ advice for consumers focus on energy efficient appliances, insulation, washing at 30 degrees, line-drying and other measures which can take a relatively decent bite out of household emissions (with helpful links to Tesco direct product pages for laundry airers and energy saving lightbulbs). No where does it tell you what you are meant to do with the information from the meticulous carbon labelling of 70,000 products (which was originally planned).

Tesco’s motto of ‘Every Little Helps’ it turns out is not the best way to think about what changes are needed to transition to low carbon lifestyles. As David Mackey says Every Big Helps“If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little. We must do a lot. What’s required are big changes in demand and in supply.”

With more people doing their supermarket shopping online, labels are increasingly something you only see after the food is delivered, and  food shopping is accompanied by a constant stream of electronically delivered suggestions about what you might prefer. There are opportunities to integrate data about product environmental impacts to help people identify the changes that most matter.

Ocado seem to be the cleverest at walking the line between annoying and helpful suggestions as to what you might want to buy, and they are starting to integrate environmental impacts into this.  They support ‘Meat Free Mondays’,  although they don’t yet go as far as actively suggesting that you might want to swap some quorn for your mince this week. Ocado also have the nifty ‘green van’ delivery option where you can see when others in your neighbourhood are already booked for deliveries and save emissions by booking yours at the same time (although the cost savings don’t seem to be passed on to the consumer with real-time easy-jet style changes in the delivery charge).

I hope that Tesco don’t just shelve all their learning from the carbon label experiment, but comes up with the next big idea.

How about an option at the online checkout to highlight the 3 substitutions that would reduce my shopping footprint the most? Or one that offers greener substitutions throughout the store? Or an option to list all products in each category in order with the greenest at the top? And at the end, of your shop there could be a feature that shows you, along with price savings you made from choosing offers, the footprint reductions you achieved accross your shopping basket for choosing greener options (alongside the reductions that Tesco have made on your behalf by working behind the scenes to improve eco-efficiency at every step, and those that your whole neighbourhood made through shopping and delivery choices).



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