Friday, May 01, 2009

carbon labelling

It irritates me when people think that some actions are too insignificant to consider the energy cost. If we are to cut back on energy consumption and its attendant carbon emissions, we have to realise when we're doing it.

So while it's used as a piece of Corporate Social Responsibility bollocks from a deeply unsustainable company, nonetheless I find it useful that Walkers crisps manage to pin a real number on the carbon emissions for their product.

Walkers crisp packet showing carbon label of 75g per pack

Their subsequent calculations show it was actually 85g a packet. They've since cut that to 80g.

Walkers, to their credit, have used seemingly rigorous methods of calculation. But if that's done on a voluntary basis then other companies can make up numbers and the whole project remains pretty useless.

Also, if genuine action only applies to a small proportion of a company's product's then it's not a serious commitment and will not have major impact. Despite being launched two years ago, the carbon label is still only on certain packets of Walkers, which in turn are only a small part of the PepsiCo product range. Just enough prominence to make it noteworthy for the press, not enough to qualify as actually taking it seriously.

The PepsiCo person who did it here for Walkers went over the Atlantic and did it again, this time looking into the carbon emissions from orange juice. And, again, I know it's used as greenwash horseshit but am still glad someone's giving us a ballpark figure.

PepsiCo finally came up with a number: the equivalent of 3.75 pounds of carbon dioxide are emitted to the atmosphere for each half-gallon carton of orange juice.

If you want to get metric, that's 899 grammes per litre, roughly equivalent to driving the average UK car for four miles.

Tesco are ramping it up a teensy bit, piloting carbon labels on around 100 of their products. (By the way, for their orange juice they found it was 1040g for a litre from concentrate, 960g for the fresh stuff).

It's now being suggested by MPs that products should have to carry carbon labelling.

a report from the Environmental Audit Committee said a proliferation of different environmental labels are confusing for consumers and allow companies to appear more eco-friendly than they actually are in a method known as "greenwash"

No shit. Check out this one on an envelope from Lovefilm. The three arrows design is generally regarded as to do with recycling. It gets abused for things that are 'recyclable'. But this doesn't even claim that.

Lovefilm envelope saying 'we use paper from sustainable forests'

Whatever those three arrows can mean, 'we use paper from sustainable forests' doesn't fit it.

The committee wants a robustly monitored system of environmental labels to show the impact of each product, including labels showing the carbon emissions produced, so that consumers can make a more informed choice.

Even if they bring out across the board mandatory carbon labelling, it's only helpful to those of us who look for it and act on it. More (and this is one of the key tricks of 'corporate social responsibility'), it casts the manufacturers and retailers in an absolved neutral role.

Leo Hickman picked up on that one.

What I really don't like about carbon labelling, though, is that is neatly passes the buck on to the consumer.

Meanwhile, Tesco gets to look all smug by boasting that it is doing its bit by empowering the consumer with such information. I would be far more impressed if it committed itself to removing from its shelves any product that doesn't cut the mustard in terms of environmental integrity.

Just as the food labelling gave us ingredients, then a nutrient breakdown and now the traffic light system so we can understand what's in front of us on the shelves and make choices for our health, so a properly audited (and inclusive of all emissions) carbon labelling system will enable us to make equally informed choices on the health of the environment.

But this needs coupling to something that gives more than just telling us the footprint or some self-regulated 'commitment' to reduce emissions. As the financial crisis has proven, self-regulation is something of an oxymoron.

1 comment:

Dunc said...

There is also the question of boundaries, as always with this sort of thing... But it's especially important here, as the carbon footprint of the retail channel is frequently the single largest component in a whole-lifecycle audit - but it can't be included here, because it's got nothing to do with the manufacture of the product.