Could carbon labels make a comeback? 

With climate change high up on the news agenda thanks to the likes of teenage activist Greta Thunberg, the results of one poll show that consumers would welcome the re-introduction of carbon labels. David Burrows reports.

WHAT’S THE STORY? In a YouGov survey of 9,037 adults in seven countries – Canada, the Netherlands, Italy, the US, Sweden, the UK and Spain – 67% supported a “recognisable carbon label”. The poll also showed the potential brand benefits of tracking and displaying carbon emissions: 66% of consumers said they would feel “more positive” about companies that can demonstrate they are making efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their products.

HAVEN’T WE TRIED THIS ALREADY? Yes. A number of companies dabbled with the concept just over a decade ago. Walkers, owned by PepsiCo, was among the first to stick a number on its packets: 75gCO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) to be precise, which covered emissions from the farm right through to disposal. The idea was to “empower people” to make informed choices. Tesco was also very keen, and promised to put a footprint figure on all its products.

WHAT HAPPENED? Basically, the companies began to realise how expensive this kind of analysis can be, and that put off other brands, so consumers had no way of comparing products. Now you’d be hard-pushed to find one of these labels anywhere.

WHAT’S CHANGED, THEN? Well, the poll suggests that consumer support in carbon labelling has increased – and quite significantly. Surprisingly, there are not too many surveys on the topic, but a Populus one around a decade ago showed that 49% would be more likely to buy a product with a carbon label. A study in the US in 2017 also showed that 45% of people rated a carbon label as more important than other eco-labels. Now look at the latest research mentioned at the beginning – which, it has to be noted, was commissioned by the Carbon Trust, an organisation with a vested interest in the concept – and support appears to have rocketed.

WHY? Good question. The survey was carried out before all the recent Extinction Rebellion hullabaloo and subsequent declarations of a climate emergency. However, there is clearly a renewed focus on tackling climate change – politically and publicly – and this has brought current consumption patterns into sharp perspective.

ARE POLITICIANS KEEN? Probably not, but it’ll be on the radar. Denmark is already planning a climate mark for food. Here in the UK, ministers are traditionally reluctant to tell people what to eat. However, the government’s advisors in the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) have made no bones about the fact that consumption of some products – notably red meat and dairy – must be reduced. The CCC’s most recent report suggested that on average agricultural emissions per household must fall from 1.6tCO2e today to somewhere between 04-0.7tCO2e by 2050. Improvements in production and efficiency will get us some way there (although the farming sector has of late struggled to keep a lid on its emissions). Consumption patterns will need to change as well, though: by shifting towards “healthier diets relying less on carbon-intensive animal products” individuals can cut their dietary emissions by 35%, the CCC said.

AND A CARBON LABEL WILL HELP THEM DO THAT? Perhaps. Look at what’s happened with fridges, for example, which have to carry energy labels. A climate label on food would help people compare foods and choose the climate-friendly ones (and, as research by the University of Oxford last year showed, there are considerable differences between two very similar products). The likes of Quorn have already invested a lot of money in footprinting their meat-free offers. “We believe this is essential for ensuring credibility amongst key stakeholders; particularly as food choices are increasingly acknowledged as being fundamental to a 1.5 degree future,” says the manufacturer’s sustainability manager Louise Needham. She recently suggested that the timing “seems to be right” to start delivering the message that Quorn products come with a much-reduced environmental footprint compared to meat. However, it is far from straightforward.

WHY’S THAT? Well, for a start carbon can be a narrow indicator – food production also has impacts on biodiversity, pollution (think plastic and pesticides), not to mention animal welfare. For example, what if the products are low carbon but over-packaged? Or low impact but from intensive farming systems? There’s also nutrition to consider – for instance, what if sweets are better for the planet than nuts? And we haven’t even mentioned price (which is why some see a carbon tax on products as a more effective instrument).

IT ALL SOUNDS VERY COMPLICATED. It is. As Sarah Jane Widdowson from the environmental consultancy Ricardo Energy & Environment puts it: “The barrier for me is the messaging – can you create a label that will be able to tell the consumer at a glance whether the product they’ve selected is better or worse than a similar product?” What’s more, she adds: “Should the consumer buy that product at all?” That’s a moot point: with over-consumption now very much in the public eye, and the stiff emissions reductions required, there is growing acceptance that something has to give – and perhaps it is choice.

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