A huge amount of effort is going into the development of a carbon label standard. But could such information on products be more misleading than enlightening? Katie Kilgallen reports

A step “towards a revolution in green consumption” is how Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy described the launch of the grocer’s carbon-labelling pilot last month. The boss of one of the UK’s biggest supermarket chains openly encouraged all its suppliers and competitors to follow suit.

Consider the long list of big-name retailers and brands – which also includes Boots, Walkers, Innocent and B&Q – that have undertaken, or are planning, similar trials with the Carbon Trust and you’d be forgiven for thinking that universal adoption of a carbon reduction standard was inevitable.

However, many, including some of those testing carbon labels, are far from satisfied that putting carbon-footprint information on individual products is the most effective way to help retailers and their customers and suppliers save the planet.

There is scepticism about whether this time-consuming and expensive process can really produce accurate figures or whether those figures are in fact misleading and confusing for customers, rather than enlightening. Furthermore, do retailers and their suppliers really need that level of detailed information to reduce carbon emissions in the supply chain?

The retail sector is now often seen to be leading the way on the green agenda. Despite this, it is unlikely that retailers will have the luxury of time to ponder the best way forward. Political and social developments could well force their hand. Talk in the UK about personal carbon allowances for individuals, as well as calls from Brussels for increased regulation, suggest that we could be headed for an era of mandatory eco-labelling.

EU policy-makers are considering extending the existing labelling scheme for energy-using products, such as washing machines and freezers, to all manufactured consumer goods. This could ultimately mean that everything from bathtubs to clothing would carry such a label.

If compulsory labelling is indeed where we are bound, Tesco has got a head start. After working with the Carbon Trust, the grocer launched a trial carbon-labelling scheme across 20 of its products, including detergents, light bulbs, potatoes and orange juice. The labels show the carbon output across the product’s entire lifecycle – from manufacture to consumption. They are not the first consumer-facing carbon footprint labels, but they are the first to allow consumers to compare like with like – for example, orange juice from concentrate with fresh orange juice.

When the supermarket giant launched the labels last month, Leahy said Tesco wants to give its customers “the power to make informed green choices for their weekly shop”. Thinking along similar lines, managing director of organic food chain As Nature Intended Caroline Gooding is confident that the public is ready, willing and able to digest and respond to the information the carbon label provides. She believes things have moved a long way in 18 months, thanks to wide coverage in the media. “Now I think everyone is aware of what a carbon footprint is.”

Label overload
However, many other retailers are far from convinced that the time is right. B&Q sustainable development manager Rachel Bradley says: “With any labelling, it has to start from the customer perspective and help them make decisions. Where we are struggling is whether it gives customers the information they want.”

Bradley says there is a “nervousness” at B&Q about “label overload”. A Forum for the Future report published in April, Eco-promising, addressed just this issue. It found that the wide range of eco-labels and eco promises – for example, fairtrade, Forest Stewardship Council and organic – was often confusing. Another label in a similar vein could well muddy the waters further. The report also warned that companies should be wary of focusing too much on labelling when there are many other ways to communicate with customers on these issues.

Environmental and geotechnical consultancy WSP Environmental director David Symons agrees with this more rounded approach. He believes there are other, clearer ways of informing customers than a figure for the number of grams of carbon.

“There are simpler things you can do, a little easier and more useful for customers. There is lots that retailers can be doing to take action and educate customers – it’s much more than all about a label,” he says.

Bradley describes B&Q’s approach as: “We will if you will.” “Customers want to know how they can do their bit. What we need customers to do is understand how to reduce the impact in their homes. For us, it’s important people know how to use energy control, insulate houses and not waste water,” she explains. “At the same time, we have been working with our supply chain to improve environmental impact.”

B&Q has been running its Quest (Quality, Environment, Safety) programme with suppliers since the early 1990s. Bradley says suppliers understand the impact of their products and are taking steps to reduce them. “It’s an ongoing process,” she adds.

Symons agrees other avenues need to be explored first and that it is not perhaps the right time to consider putting a carbon footprint on everything we buy. “It’s not that useful for consumers at the moment. There are other things that are more helpful,” he says.

His company is doing a lot of work with retailers on footprinting, but his approach differs from the Carbon Trust’s. “We’re not doing the level of detail the Carbon Trust requires,” he says. “We do broad-brush carbon footprint – that’s broad mapping of where big impact is. We think this is a slightly more useful measure and allows you to take action quickly.”

Symons is also sceptical about whether you can get a precise measurement. “Individual grams is something not possible at the moment,” he says. He also points out that the more accurate you want the labelling, the more expensive it will be.

The cost of carbon labelling, both in time and money, could be a huge stumbling block. “If you are a retailer with 6,000 SKUs, that’s an awful lot of expense. If you are a manufacturer – eg, Cadbury – and you are introducing 200 product lines into the mix a year, it gets prohibitively expensive pretty quickly,” explains Symons.

While being in favour of the label in principle, Gooding does consider cost and other practicalities a barrier. Many of her suppliers have better eco-credentials than most – more often than not, working towards being carbon neutral – but they may be adversely affected if accurate product footprinting and labelling become mandatory. “I think, to be honest, it could be quite difficult for our suppliers. They are very, very small and wouldn’t have the resources and it would be expensive to come up with new packaging and labelling,” she says.

Even for larger companies, this is a key consideration. Bradley says: “At the moment, it’s an expensive and time-consuming thing to do. Our view as to whether to use the label is undecided.”

The cost and time involved appear even more onerous when you consider that carbon is just one of the many eco-issues that retailers need to be on top of.

As Symons says: “The world is talking about carbon footprinting, but there’s more to life than carbon.”

Bradley agrees that focusing too much on carbon can be dangerous. “Carbon is only one aspect of sustainability,” she says. For example, embedded water or where the wood is sourced from can be equally, if not more, important for certain products.

Gooding agrees that focusing on carbon footprinting is limiting. “Fairtrade products by their nature are sourced from far away and will have higher carbon footprints. You can’t compare a British apple with a fairtrade banana,” she says.

Symons suggests a more general eco-footprint may be the way forward. “A blended metric that takes carbon, water and natural resources and stitches them together into a metric of the overall impact.”

But Bradley is sceptical about an all-encompassing eco-label. “[It’s] one of those things that would be great, but in practice is difficult,” she says.

Forum for the Future head of retail Tom Berry also warns of the limitations of this generalist approach. “Firstly, making it happen practically is difficult. The European eco-label hasn’t been successful because it has tried to incorporate too many things,” he says. “Some consumers are more concerned with different topics than others and have their own agendas. On some products, one issue is more important than others. I don’t see it happening in the near future.”

Despite B&Q’s reservations, after working with the Carbon Trust to evaluate the business’s carbon footprint, the next step will be to work with the trust to carbon-footprint individual products. “Customers are not looking for it at the moment. But it’s definitely something we’re watching. It’s one of those things that could creep,” Bradley says.

She also acknowledges that looking at the impact of individual products can be a “great place to start” from an internal perspective, as it highlights hot spots and can throw up surprising results. Her view is that it’s not something retailers of any type or size can ignore.

Whatever the future for the carbon label, one issue that everyone tends to agree on is that the industry should be working as one on eco-labelling. Bradley believes, in contrast to what has happened with nutrition labelling on food, that it is important there is one widely accepted way of doing things. “Harmony is very important, especially from Kingfisher’s perspective as an international retailer,” she says. B&Q supports the Carbon Trust’s efforts to ensure its carbon label becomes a globally recognised standard.

Gooding takes a similar position: “If the industry stood together in partnership, that would be fantastic,” she says.

The future of the carbon label may be difficult to predict. But it is certain that retailers will not have much time to sit back and consider their options.