Carbon Labels: A Key Element in Climate Change Education

by | Mar 31, 2011

Carbon labeling for consumer goods is a concept full of promise and complexity. Providing end-users with information about the CO2 produced in the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of products is a logical step in a world where NGOs, businesses, and governments are focused on reducing the impact carbon has on the health of our planet. Over the past five years, these three groups have each played a role in developing and implementing carbon labels. Today, carbon cataloging for all products appears inevitable and will allow shoppers around the world to more easily make purchasing decisions that help protect the Earth.

In 2006 Carbon Trust, a United Kingdom non-profit, developed the Carbon Reduction Label in an attempt to document the amount of carbon released during the lifecycle of a product and then pass that data onto consumers. The label was designed to show the carbon footprint of common items sold in the United Kingdom, such as detergent and cookies, and was implemented by several well-known companies that include Tesco and Walkers Crisps.

Around the same time, the US based footwear and clothing manufacturer Timberland was developing a “nutritional label” for their products. Their sticker assessed the effect of the company’s manufacturing practices on the health of the environment and the communities in which their plants operated. Initially, the same information appeared on all Timberland products, but in January 2007 their eco-labeling idea matured into the Green Index™ rating system that focuses on the impact of individual products. Ranking each item based on climate impact, chemicals used, and resources consumed allows Timberland to then rate their goods using a 0 – 10 system, with 0 being the lowest environmental impact. The Green Index™, the first eco-rating system for the apparel industry, is still in use and shows the tendency for markets to define their own sustainability standards.

Sweden’s government moved into the carbon labeling arena in 2008 when the Nutrition Department of their National Food Administration was asked to create new guidelines that encompass reducing climate change as well as maintaining human health. Earlier research suggested that up to 25% of an individual’s carbon footprint is associated with their diet. This incredible statistic shows that in addition to reducing my driving and flying, what I choose to bring into my kitchen affects my personal carbon emissions. This information means that seeking alternative sources of energy for my home and what I decide to order when eating out are both important ways in which I can help combat global warming.

By moving toward carbon labeling, Sweden’s actions are saying that providing consumers with more information will enable them to be better stewards of our natural world and that it is the role of government to push industry toward making CO2 information available. This is a wonderful step in the right direction, yet I see some challenges with including carbon emission counts alongside food in restaurants and at grocery stores.

The most obvious hurdle is defining who will be responsible for measuring carbon and which standards they will follow. In Sweden, emissions labeling is currently only a recommendation and each producer is asked to conduct its own research. The government has funded general studies on the nation’s staple products, but because there are multiple factors, including soil conditions, fertilizer use, degree of processing, packaging material, and length of transportation, companies such as Max, Sweden’s version of McDonald’s, are working to define the footprints of their specific menu items. The nation’s largest food co-op, Lantmannen, which is owned by 40,000 Swedish farmers, is also conducting CO2 emission audits for many of its products and placing its findings in supermarkets across the country.

The guidelines put forth by Sweden’s National Food Administration are now under review by other European Union (EU) countries. It will be interesting to see where the process goes from here. I am very encouraged that the development of carbon counting is already underway and am confident that EU programs could act as a models for how to roll out CO2 emission labels for food in America. Despite this forward progress, not all parties are in agreement that carbon labeling is a good idea. A 2009 study by the NCCR Trade Regulation finds both the lack of one standard certifying organization and the idea of creating a multi-national validation process reason for concern. Their paper states that “no widely accepted system of labeling exists, and creating one raises a number of questions on the global political and economic levels.” Not having a third party accreditation system in place is a valid concern as is the existence of too many organizations offering validation, something with which many industries struggle. Developing an international system would be difficult, but not impossible.

The second concern with carbon labels revolves around consumer education. Will people understand what the carbon numbers mean? When nutritional labels were introduced across the US in 1994, there was a steep learning curve. Even though much of the population already knew the terms being used, such as fat, protein, sodium, and carbohydrates, most of us did not fully understand how much fiber was enough and how the three different types of fats might affect our health. It has taken both public and private educational campaigns to bring us up to speed on why and how we should be reading nutritional labels and all the while dietary guidelines continue to change. It is prudent to expect the same ramp up time and on-going configuration when carbon emissions information is added to a food label already complex with nutritional analysis.

These organizational hurdles I have outlined are not specific to the food industry and will have to be managed across all sectors of the economy. Despite the trials, I believe CO2 labels will become ubiquitous over the next five years. The idea is similar in many ways to the model Climate Counts has developed. Climate Counts is one of my favorite organizations because it works to empower consumers in making purchasing decisions based on how companies are handling their climate change responsibilities. It ranks businesses in a variety of industries against a score card that evaluates what each company is doing to reduce its impact on the warming atmosphere. Educated consumers are then able to effect change as they have always done, by voting with their wallet for the type of company that takes its CO2 emissions management seriously.

The role of individuals can easily be seen when the discussion is brought back to the importance of carbon labels on food. Imagine going into a restaurant and ordering a pizza made with local goat cheese and organic vegetables. It would have a low CO2 count and most likely a slightly higher price than a pizza from the same establishment made with pepperoni and mozzarella sourced from a major distributor, which would have a higher emission label and a corresponding lower price. As with many Swedes, some US consumers will not change their eating habits, but opportunities to steadily transform people’s patterns abound. How many of us have been torn between two items at the supermarket or at the local grill? I have a feeling that understanding the true cost of what we purchase to the well-being the planet will move a significant portion of the population to choose the product or meal with the lower CO2 rating. They may not always make choices based on emissions information but if enough people do so occasionally, the combined impact of their decisions will create significant change.

I have been reading articles for several years that extol the virtues of a plant-based diet and I’ve noticed that the theme of these pieces has increasingly moved from personal health to the well-being of the planet. In addition to the goals of generating all of their country’s energy from non-carbon based fuels by 2020 and not allowing the sale of fossil fuel powered vehicles by 2030, Sweden has researched what else they can do to help reduce their country’s carbon emissions. By rolling out the inclusion of CO2 emission information with one of the most common items in our day-to-day lives, they have pioneered a system that has the power to transform the way we look at our food and the way we interact with our planet.

I am very hopeful that despite the logistical challenges, carbon emissions labels on food and other consumer products will soon be as common as nutritional information and material labels. I foresee both governments and NGOs playing a role in developing the programs as well as educating consumers on how to decipher CO2 figures. And I believe that providing people with carbon information is the best way for them to make informed decisions about how their actions affect our changing climate.

Matt Courtland of The Natural Strategy educates people on sustainable business practices while reconnecting them to the energy and inspiration found in nature.

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