Will Companies Get Carbon Labels Right?

by | Mar 11, 2008

A BusinessWeek article has tackled the issues surrounding carbon labels. As EL readers know, there’s lots of controversy – also hurdles – to overcome.

Top of the list is that manufacturers and retailers have yet to come up with an easy way to provide carbon information to customers – essentially because measuring the carbon in a product is very difficult (some say it’s impossible to get it right). When Boots, Britain’s largest pharmacy chain, tried labels on shampoo, it needed signs in its stores to explain them. Timberland, one of the first to provide carbon data on products, inserts fact sheets in shoe boxes.

Even with those measures, consumers have a hard time getting their heads around the real meaning of a product containing, for example, a certain number of grams of carbon. “I have a PhD in environmental physics, and it doesn’t mean a thing to me,” said Steve Howard, CEO of the Climate Group, in the article.

Still, more than half of UK consumers want information about the carbon footprint of the products they purchase and nearly half would switch to brands with smaller carbon footprints.

Perhaps more problematic, counting carbon is beyond complex. Unilever, a top supplier of household products to Tesco, which has set a goal of putting a carbon label on every product it sells, operates 260 factories in 70 countries and works with more than 10,000 subcontractors, according to the article. Trying to measure the carbon from all the various parts is hard enough, but what happens when Unilever moves production of a product, which Unilever says might be as often as once a week? Tesco might ask for a new carbon label, something Unilever says it just couldn’t do.

Tesco and Unilever are moving forward to collect such data – they’re two of six companies that have formed the Supply Chain Leadership Coalition, an organization that will press suppliers to release data about carbon emissions.

And don’t forget cost, BusinessWeek says the price of an initial carbon measure could equal $10,000 or more per item.

The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is taking steps to come up with standards for carbon labels, which could bring the cost down. A recent article said that the creation of private eco-labels will slow until such standards are put in place.

More on carbon labels here.

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