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Buying Power

Proper labelling can help us decide where we put our money

Many surveys and research studies from around the world suggest that, where all else is equal, consumers would choose a product that has a low carbon footprint over one that doesn’t. ‘The numbers are particularly high in developing countries and with younger demographics’, says Dr John Kazer, certification manager at Carbon Trust. ‘A committed minority does consider environmental impact first, but most people focus mainly on price and quality.’

John-Kazer-2013_DSC6539The good news is that the quality of products tends to go up, and the cost of production down, when companies invest in sustainability – and this is being seen at the checkouts. ‘Recent Nielsen research has shown an average 2% growth for companies with sustainability claims on packaging’, says John, ‘which rises to 5% when companies make this part of wider product marketing.’

Still, supply chains and carbon emission measurements are complex issues at the best of times; they’re even harder to get your head round when you’re trying to whip round the shops. ‘Consumers still don’t instinctively understand what 50 grams or 10 kilograms or 1 tonne of greenhouse gases means in terms of causing climate change’, explains John. ‘What’s easier to understand is when one number is bigger than another, as shoppers can look at scale and make comparisons.

They also understand that companies that have taken the trouble to measure, manage, certify and transparently communicate this information are taking a responsible approach to reducing the environmental impact of their products.’

The trend towards data democracy shows there is an appetite for more information to be made available at the point of sale; consumers are asking questions and they expect companies to have the answers. If key information about the environmental impact of products is made available, people would be better able to make informed decisions about how to spend their money and which companies they want to support.

Cracking the code

But even with the best intentions, it’s not easy to select the most ethical option on the supermarket shelf. Hundreds of eco-labels are appearing on products around the world – but they each mean something different, are assessed to different standards and require different levels of rigour or verification.

As consumers grow increasingly aware of environmental issues, even more labels – in even more sectors – are sprouting up to cater for the demand. Products that manufacturers claim are ‘natural’ or ‘green’ may actually be no better than other options further down the aisle, and even an in-store comparison of harder data like food miles won’t provide a full, accurate picture of a product’s all-round eco-credentials.

‘One of the big myths that people still believe is that food miles are a reasonable indicator of a product’s environmental impact’, says John. ‘Very often transportation only plays a comparatively small part in the carbon footprint of a product, which is why it is so important to measure the full life cycle.’

Some eco-labels are regulated by third parties and others have been created by the companies themselves. Fortunately for consumers, the best schemes provide good information on the internet. ‘Good things to look out for on a label are that it is independently verified by accredited certification bodies’, explains John, ‘and that it follows international standards, provides real numbers or data and requires a regular re-certification process.’

Doing it right

imageOn top of giving customers the products they want, businesses can really benefit from making serious efforts to manage and reduce their environmental impact. In most organisations, according to John, ‘what gets measured gets managed’. The process of measuring a product’s carbon footprint and achieving certification reveals new opportunities for cost saving, identifies hotspots of inefficiency and highlights where a business should focus its carbon reduction efforts.

For John, there’s nothing that a company could find in its supply chain that would be more of a concern than choosing not to look in the first place. ‘Businesses are often very surprised when they look into their supply chains and see how inefficient, wasteful or expensive certain parts can be’, he said. ‘Only after looking at what’s happening through a product’s entire life cycle can issues be identified and changes made.’

One of the best examples the Carbon Trust ever uncovered was through its work with Walkers crisps. ‘The company discovered that farmers were using humidifiers to hydrate potatoes and make them weigh more’, explains John, ‘because payment was calculated according to weight.’ This meant that the suppliers were using extra energy for humidifiers, and that Walkers was using extra energy to remove the moisture when frying the crisps. Both contributed to costs and carbon footprint, so Walkers and its farmers could make very substantial cost and carbon savings simply by altering the way transactions for potatoes were made.

Tools for action

Back in 2007 there was a growing awareness of the need for organisations and consumers to take action on climate change, but many of the practical tools needed to fully understand and reduce carbon emissions were not available. ‘When it comes to really understanding the greenhouse gas impacts of products you need to look at the full life cycle of emissions, from cradle to grave’, says John, ‘but this was not being done consistently in a way that allowed consumers to make comparisons.’

Because there was no standardised way of measuring the life cycle carbon footprint of products, the Carbon Trust developed the world’s first methodology to do this, known as PAS 2050. ‘Our certification scheme was created to make sure that companies have done their calculations correctly’, explains John, ‘and it provides a carbon footprint label to enable consumers to act on the information.’

The Carbon Trust’s label is a broadly applied and recognised environmental certification scheme, hailed by many as the ‘gold standard’. It is assessed to an international standard that can be used to certify any type of product or service around the world, rather than just fish or wood, for example. When a product displays the carbon reduction label, customers can be confident that its manufacturer has taken robust steps to understand a product’s carbon footprint, and to reduce it year-on-year. ‘Other similar labels do exist in some countries that certify to the same international standard on carbon footprinting; Taiwan is one example, and we’re currently discussing a mutual recognition scheme’, John told PQ. The Carbon Trust is also currently working to create new eco-labelling schemes for Mexico, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Brazil.

Measuring carbon

Kingsmill-P1010126-lightened-brighterLabelling with footprint information is currently entirely voluntary and is regulated by international standards and certification bodies. A product’s carbon footprint can be measured in a few different ways, but typically two different methods are used.

The first, ‘cradle-to-grave’, looks at all the emissions associated with eating a certain food product, from producing the raw materials on farms to processing, packaging and transportation, right through to when it is cooked and any waste that ends up in the bin afterwards. The second method, ‘cradle-to-gate’, just looks at all the product’s emissions up until it leaves a company’s boundary of control, so it doesn’t include the emissions associated with selling, using or disposing of the product.

There are many issues that need to be considered if a company wants to create truly sustainable products — biodiversity loss, deforestation, water use, air pollution and the treatment of workers are just some of the points to address. ‘Many of these are local issues, or specific to certain types of product’, says John. ‘But a product’s carbon footprint is a consistently applicable issue for everything that we buy. Climate change is one of the most serious and urgent issues facing the world today, which can exacerbate many other environmental and social issues. This means that a carbon footprint is a good place to start, both for businesses and consumers who want to make a difference.’

21st century issues

In many cases the environmental impact of certain foods is coming down thanks to more sustainable farming and a focus on reducing food waste. The challenge is that the global population and demand for food are both growing, which means the total environmental impact from food is, too — despite more responsible production and greater efficiency. ‘Businesses and governments are starting to respond to the challenge’, says John, ‘but this will be one of the biggest issues we need to solve as a civilization in the twenty-first century.’

As a start, it’s fair to expect companies to provide information and evidence about the impacts of their products, as otherwise consumers wouldn’t be able to make informed choices about what they buy and whether it’s worth their money.

‘Think about the issues that matter to you and your family’, advises John. ‘Look for relevant information and/or labels and use them to help you make decisions about your lifestyle. Think about the overall consumption inherent in your lifestyle, how can you change what you do and how you do it? And don’t generate waste – reuse or recycle whenever possible. Even a highly ethical or sustainable product will still have an impact!’

For more information about the Carbon Trust and its Footprint Label, visit

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