Call Made for Carbon Labels

Discussion
Mar 31, 2011
George Anderson

Solutions for addressing greenhouse gases and climate change
abound and a group of researchers writing in the journal Nature Climate
Change
 have
a suggestion, as well. Institute carbon labeling on consumer products.

The
authors of the article, Michael Vandenbergh of Vanderbilt University Law School, Thomas
Dietz of Michigan State University and Paul Stern of the National Research
Council, wrote that energy use in household dwellings accounts for 38 percent
of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. While the authors said household purchases
of durable and consumable goods could not be precisely determined at the moment, "Even
modest changes in the household sector could significantly reduce emissions."

The
argument goes that a large group of consumers  are interested in buying more
environmentally friendly products. (An eight country survey in 2008 found 33
percent of consumers have or are ready to buy "green" products.)
Consumers are also comfortable with labels on the products they buy for household
use.

According to the Nature Climate Change article, "It
is not reasonable to expect labelling to solve a complex problem by radically
shifting the behaviour of most or all consumers. It is reasonable, however,
to expect that labelling may improve a consumer’s ability to make choices and
may induce firms to change the mix of products offered to consumers. Nutritional
labelling, for example, has not eliminated diet-related health problems, but
labels do influence product selection and consumption in some cases."

The
authors do not make light of the difficulty in assessing the carbon footprint
of products, acknowledging that to be of utmost value, labels must track the
full life-cycle of a product. Finding a label that works across borders is
also seen as a need that is not currently being addressed.

In late 2007, Tesco
announced it was beginning a two-year trial of a carbon footprint program by
labeling 20 store branded items from four categories including detergents,
orange juice, potatoes and light bulbs. Since then, the British chain, working
with the non-profit Carbon Trust, has expanded the program to include over
100 own-brand items. Other companies using the carbon reduction label in the
U.K. include Dyson, Kingsmill (baker), Morphy Richards (clothing irons) and
Walkers (snack division of Pepsico).

Discussion Questions: Is the time right for carbon labeling? Is this an endeavor for an industry organization, for-profit supplier or independent non-governmental organization of some type?

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7 Comments on "Call Made for Carbon Labels"


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Dan Gilmore
Guest
Dan Gilmore
10 years 1 month ago
I suspect most will say what a great idea this is–we’ll see–but the questions are: 1. Will the labels in any way be truly accurate? Don’t see how this is possible, really, today, for many reasons. Sourcing variance and changes, among many factors. 2. Worth the cost? To get accuracy will require a lot of cost to manufacturers. 3. Unlike nutrition labels, which have an “absolute” value if you will (this stuff is good for me, this stuff isn’t) to a consumer the only value will be “relative”–comparing one product versus another. The specific amount of carbon attached to the product is meaningless absent a comparison. How much better is say a score of “19” versus “20”? And will anyone realize that how the product got to the store (some rail transport versus all truck, DC delivery versus direct store delivery, etc.) likely has a much bigger impact on the total carbon emitted than the differences between different products on the label? But at some point this silly idea will probably go forward anyways, and… Read more »
David Livingston
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

I don’t see how this would benefit the bottom line of any business. Nutrition labels–there is a demand for that. A lot of people would not buy a product unless the ingredients were listed. But carbon labels? I doubt anyone really cares.

Paul Hepperla
Guest
Paul Hepperla
10 years 1 month ago
While the idea of carbon labeling is gaining some traction, there continue to be ongoing concerns and real world issues around the veracity of those labels and how consumers can understand what the label means to them. The carbon impact of a product is typically discovered through a life cycle assessment (LCA). The LCA of a typical product can mean a very deep dive. The University of Stockholm has a great study examining the carbon footprint of a hamburger. It’s not just about the meat, bun and associated packaging. It’s about the entire process from land use for the cattle, the feedstock, the slaughter and meat packing process, etc. In other words, it’s not an easy task and today, many of the labels are based upon assumptions which can be +/- 25%. At that level of accuracy, I think many consumers, manufacturers and retailers will question the purpose of carbon labeling if its not accurate and if the consumer doesn’t understand what the label means in the first place. These are real issues that will… Read more »
Edward Weisberg
Guest
Edward Weisberg
10 years 1 month ago

I believe the time is right for carbon labeling on products. For consumers who don’t care about carbon footprint, there is no downside. However, an increasing number of consumers are very interested in reducing carbon footprint. Therefore products that can certify their “carbon consciousness” and minimal footprint will benefit from a market advantage from their efforts in this regard. There are a number of certifying agencies. The GXT Green Seal is an example of a carbon certification program that is available for companies and products to certify their carbon reduction efforts.

Bill Emerson
Guest
Bill Emerson
10 years 1 month ago

The most interesting statistic in the article is the one that says that only a third of those surveyed indicated any interest in buying “green” products. It’s probably safe to assume that this is a highly inflated number since it’s unlikely that anyone would indicate that they don’t care about the environment. Then the article goes on to say that it is extremely complicated to come up with an accurate measure of the product impact.

So there is a low interest coupled with enormous complexity along with very little potential for significant positive impact. Sounds like the makings for a perfect new multi-$billion EPA program, perhaps a whole new department.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest
10 years 1 month ago

“It is not reasonable to expect labeling to solve a complex problem by radically shifting the behavior of most or all consumers.”

Wow…and that’s from the supporters! As a marketing tool, this probably has some merit; as a means of improving the world, very little.

Odonna Mathews
Guest
Odonna Mathews
10 years 1 month ago

Some consumers may want to know about the carbon rating for particular products. But I don’t believe we’re at the point where labels would really be accurate. Who sets the standards so the ratings are consistent? A lot of consumer education would need to go into a program like this, not to mention industry collaboration.

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