Carbon-footprint labels are visual symbols of a brand’s solid commitment to reduce their impact on the environment and reduce their carbon footprint.According to an Article in The Economist (June 2, 2011), sections of which are available below, Carbon-footprint labels are quietly spreading. Consumers may not have noticed them yet, but there is a lot going on behind the scenes.
From a Southern perspective, carbon-foot printing could raise different questions: How far is this process useful to ‘integrate true Green House Gas Accounting’ directly into the foundation of the global economy? Who eventually meets the ‘carbon foot-print’ cost (consumer or producer)? Would this ‘effort’ have been diverted elsewhere or in another form, where more global benefits would accrue?
The idea with carbon labels is to let shoppers identify products with the smallest carbon footprints, just as other labels already indicate dolphin-friendly tuna, organic milk or Fairtrade coffee. Producers would compete to reduce the carbon footprints of their products, and consumers would be able to tell whether, for example, locally made goods really were greener than imported ones.
Carbon labels have yet to become as widely recognised by consumers as other eco-labels, however. A survey carried out in 2010 by a British consumer group, found that just a fifth of British shoppers recognised the carbon footprint label, compared with recognition rates of 82% for Fairtrade and 54% for organic labelling. This is understandable, because carbon labelling is a much more recent development—organic labelling dates back to the 1970s, and Fairtrade to the late 1980s—and the right ways to do it are still being worked out. Adding a carbon label to a product is a complex and often costly process that involves tracing its ingredients back up their respective supply chains and through their manufacturing processes, to work out their associated emissions. According to 3M, an American industrial giant that makes over 55,000 different products, this can cost $30,000 for a single product. To further confuse matters, different carbon footprinting and labelling standards have emerged in different countries, preventing direct comparisons between the various types of label.
The value of carbon footprinting and labelling lies in identifying these sorts of savings, rather than informing consumers or making companies look green. According to a report issued in 2009 by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester, in England, “the main benefits of carbon labelling are likely to be incurred not via communication of emissions values to consumers, but upstream via manufacturers looking for additional ways to reduce emissions.” It is not so much the label itself that matters, in other words, but the process that must be gone through to create it. Walkers has reduced the footprint of its crisps by 7% since the introduction of its first carbon labels. Indeed, to use the Carbon Trust’s label, companies must do more than just measure the footprint of a product: they must commit themselves to reducing it.
In France, a year-long experiment will begin in July, involving 168 firms in a range of industries, to apply carbon labels to products including clothing, furniture and cleaning products. An accompanying campaign will try to raise awareness of carbon labels among consumers. This is a prelude to the planned introduction of compulsory carbon-labelling rules, possibly as soon as 2012, which will apply to imported goods as well as those made in France. The new rules, devised by AFNOR, the French Standards Agency, require labels to show more than just the carbon footprint. Depending on the product category, they must also include other environmental data, such as the product’s water footprint and impact on biodiversity. Product-category rules have already been drawn up by AFNOR and the French environment ministry for shoes, wood, furniture, shampoo and fabric chairs. The project is the result of Grenelle 2, a law passed in 2010 which marks the first time a government has tried to make environmental labelling mandatory.
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