Carbon labelling seemed like a great idea when I first wrote about it over a year ago. Knowing the carbon footprint of every item we purchase would allow us to make better choices and help us to reduce our overall contribution to climate change. According to the Carbon Trust's ‘The carbon emissions generated in all that we consume', 45 percent of the average UK resident's carbon footprint is created by the products they buy and use. This is definitely one area where there is scope for improvement. A recent report by Tom Berry, Dan Crossley and Jemima Jewell from Forum For The Future entitled ‘Check-Out Carbon: The role of carbon labelling in delivering a low-carbon shopping basket', gives a good all-around analysis of carbon labelling. For reference, Forum for the Future is a sustainable development charity that works with leading organizations in business and the public sector to promote sustainable environmental policy.
This report (pdf), released in June 2008, looks at the role carbon labelling could play in helping to create consumer awareness and leading to a low-carbon shopping basket. The report is aimed at the key stakeholders in the business side of consumer products - the manufacturing, retail, marketing and communications industries. The report looks at carbon labelling from four main perspectives: Whether the climate change impacts of products should be communicated to consumers; In what way the information should be best presented; What constitutes an effective carbon label; Whether there are other means of delivering a low-carbon shopping basket. Each area was researched in-depth, and recommendations were made to achieve the goal of improved consumer shopping habits within the time frame of the 10 to 15 years we have left to make a realistic difference to rising global temperatures.
The report's main recommendations for the government and other stakeholders are:
- Encourage consumers to make the big, non-product choices - such as driving less.
- Provide advice and support action on the product issues that really matter - such as reducing food waste and using electrical appliances more efficiently.
- Take sustainability decisions on behalf of your customers - remove the high-carbon villains from sale.
- Ensure carbon messaging fits with other sustainability messaging - don't confuse consumers.
- Give advice on how to reduce post-checkout impacts - when product use or disposal impacts are significant.
- Start with the big feet - prioritise measurement and labelling of products by focusing on those with: high overall footprints; high impacts during consumer use; high variability within a category; and big opportunities for reduction.
- Be selective about what you communicate - don't put a label on everything.
- Ensure you give consumers options not just information - know what you want consumers to do with a label.
What comes across from the report is that a co-ordinated and well thought-out approach is essential to ensure consumers actually make positive changes to their shopping habits. Carbon labelling is only one element in the fight against climate change. There have to be a raft of strategies in place to ensure we can change consumer behaviour within the 10-15 year timeframe available to us to have any chance of slowing the rapid rise in global temperatures.
Giving people the information is a good start, showing them how to make a difference through the purchases they make is a vital next step. Simply informing consumers that the loaf of bread they need to buy is a high carbon item is only helpful if there is a low carbon loaf of bread available to purchase. Helping people to understand the value of lifestyle changes is equally, if not more important. The things people take for granted, like driving everywhere instead of walking, flying abroad whenever they want to, leaving appliances on standby and all the other things they do in their lives that cause massive amounts of carbon emissions need to be cut back as much as possible. The retailers and manufacturers have a responsibility to reduce the carbon footprint of their products too. By taking the choice away from consumers, it virtually guarantees a reduction in carbon emissions.
Above all, I think there needs to be a strong and unequivocal message from the top down that it is up to all of us, consumers, businesses and governments to take the necessary measures to reduce carbon emissions. As long as world leaders are seen to be backing away from adopting measures to reduce carbon emissions, many people will not take climate change seriously.