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Would You Buy Products With Carbon Labels?

by Sophia Man Africa Americas Asia Europe Oceania Jun 2nd 20217 mins
Would You Buy Products With Carbon Labels?

The production and transportation chains of common and leisure goods, mainly food and drink, are two of the most prominent sources of carbon emissions per household. Food accounts for 10 to 30% of a household’s carbon emissions (even more so in lower-income households), in which production is responsible for 68% of food emissions, and transportation takes up about 5%. Carbon labels on common goods can help consumers make more low-carbon purchases. Yet, many businesses still hesitate on making carbon labelling a common practice. Their biggest doubt is whether carbon labelling would actually affect our shopping habits.

To talk about the future, we must look at the past- 2006, to be specific: The UK’s Carbon Trust introduced the Carbon Reduction Label pilot. Products such as Walkers crisps, Boots shampoos, and various common goods by Tesco all bore a label, with a number in grams stating their carbon footprints from source to store. This pilot was promising, with over 60% of survey participants excited about making more environmentally-friendly purchases with the information from companies. Contrastingly, a survey by Boots revealed that over 70% of customers were confused about the concept of carbon labelling, carbon footprint and its influences on climate change. Long story short, consumer reactions were meek, Carbon Trust couldn’t persuade more businesses to join the wagon, and the pilot was terminated.

The Carbon Reduction Labelling pilot was truly ahead of its time. Fast forward to the present, as public environmental consciousness, and demand for a low-carbon economy are at the newest height, the call for the comeback of carbon labelling is on the rise: recovered from setbacks, the Carbon Trust has proudly labelled countless products through their product footprinting certification and labelling projects. Partnering with Carbon Trust are meat-substitute brand Quorn, healthcare products company GSK, evian® bottle water producer Danone, smartphone manufacturer Samsung, and many more. Independently, companies such as Oatly and Nestlé are also leading this movement. This time around, past lessons ought to be learnt for better, sustainable implementation. The 2006 Carbon Reduction Labelling pilot goes to show consumers can’t be expected to immediately understand carbon labels. Wide-spread awareness of climate change, carbon footprint and carbon labelling is the key to success. To do so, campaigns that incorporate TV, radio, newspapers, social media and formal educational materials should be used by governments and NGOs.

Still, just spreading awareness is not enough. As human beings, we don’t always make logical decisions. Research in 2017 pointed out a confusing attitude-behaviour gap: even though online survey participants knew and cared about carbon footprint and climate change, over half of them wouldn’t buy low-carbon labelled products. Same observation is seen in the recent 2020 Carbon Trust survey: the majority of shoppers said “yes” to more carbon labels but “no” to actually buying them. Here are a few decision-deterring factors to help us understand this concerning discrepancy.

Everyday we decide what to buy based on comparisons. Looking back at the Carbon Reduction Labelling project, better-informed customers also had a tough time depicting anything substantial from the carbon labels, due to a lack of other comparable carbon labelled products. Imagine trying to buy a carton of milk: there are ten options, but only one has a carbon label saying “1 kg”- what does this mean? Is “1 kg” good or bad? Also, does this mean the other nine options are less climate-friendly? Not necessarily, but you wouldn’t know due to a lack of labelling. So would you choose the carbon labelled one, given that the other nine options could be more nutritious or cheaper?

However, as demands rise for businesses to fulfil their environmental responsibilities, there sure will be more carbon labelled products in the future. “The few first brands which put carbon footprint labels on their products will encourage customers to use the information for better decision making, who will expect other businesses to follow suit,” says Alexander Frantzen, founder and CEO of Carbon Calories. Carbon Calories formulates standardised carbon emissions labels of various products (i.e. running shoes, sweaters) to compare against an individual’s daily carbon quota. In the meantime, education on how to read carbon labels is just as necessary. Sandra Noonan, the chief sustainability officer of the US restaurant chain Just Salad, which labels the carbon footprint of items on the menu, agrees. “We’re developing materials that will explain how to read a carbon label, make sense of the actual number, and incorporate that information into one’s daily food choices,” she says.

The presence of other product labels (i.e. nutrients, cruelty-free, organic, non-GMO, fair-trade) can be confusing. Nowadays many products bear many different labels, which can overwhelm many customers. Shopping can be a time and mind-draining task, meaning carbon labels take the backseat in customers’ minds in comparison to other labels. This is due to the relatively low perceived immediate, personal impacts of climate change: After eating a bag of chips with high-fat content, you can already imagine what it would do to your body for the next hour. With cruelty-free cosmetics, you can envision saving a cute little bunny somewhere. In contrast, the impact of the carbon footprint of your purchases seems abstract and not very far-reaching.

To put carbon labelling at the forefront of our minds when shopping, shops can display a “low-carbon products” area at their centre stages. A designated area means fewer efforts for busy customers to hunt on the shelves for carbon-labelled goods. Setting this area up in an eye-catching area can also serve as a reminder to unassuming customers to limit their carbon footprints. Meanwhile, one way to highlight the immediate threats of carbon emissions is by displaying pictures such as melting ice caps and endangered animals: being reminded visually of the impacts of our actions encourages us to think more critically about our choices.

To encourage climate-friendly purchases, the position and design of the carbon labels also play a big role. We have all picked up a product because it had a big, bold, in-your-face label. Putting the carbon label at the front of the packaging, making it eye-catching and comprehensible will help in consumer take-up. Attach information too- but not too much! A study found customers like to have information at hand but don’t want to spend too much time and effort reading all of it- the last thing wanted during shopping is encrypted, perplexing data. The UK GDA nutritional label is an excellent “traffic-light labelling” example. Alternatively, customers can scan a QR code next to the simple carbon label, leading them to the business’s website with an extensive list of data. 

Some have requested a single, unified carbon label design. “You need to have alignment . . . on the methodology you use, otherwise it’s going to be a jungle of all kinds of labels,” says Aude Gandon, global chief marketing officer at Nestlé. Indeed, without standards and protocols by governments and NGOs, customers will be floored by numerous different-looking labels produced by businesses’ internal carbon footprint measurements and criteria, all claiming their superiority- this will only harm the credibility of carbon labelling. Various countries, including Australia, Japan, Thailand, Germany, already implement official carbon labelling schemes. Most people also don’t want to pay extra for low-carbon products. This can be bad news to businesses putting in the extra investment for carbon labelling. Governments and policymakers can provide these businesses with financial support, such as a carbon tax reduction. However, as only 25 countries implement carbon tax for now, other policies can be used as substitutes. One of which is the “Cap and Dividend” policy: businesses can only emit a limited amount of carbon and have to auction for more permits. The revenue can then go back to taxpayers wallets or green economy development. Alternatively, businesses must neutralise their extra carbon emission by paying a penalty plus interest. This amount of money can be redistributed to carbon footprint- conscious businesses as rewards. In time, the influences of these policies will be reflected firstly by product prices and thus by customer behavioural patterns. Businesses will as a result increase attempts to lower carbon emissions. The key point is an implementation of carbon emission limitation, which ideally should increase slowly but surely.

At the end of the day, we act only when we feel like our efforts matter. Though customers worldwide are adopting “activist shopping” habits, using carbon labels is still an uncommon practice. Many customers still feel that their commitment to low-carbon shopping won’t make a difference, as they don’t see others doing it. Similarly, businesses (planning on) putting time and money into carbon labelling want to see other companies do the same.  Businesses can cooperate with shops and supermarkets to give rewards, such as coupons and memberships, to shoppers who choose low carbon products. This will hopefully attract consumers to participate in the short term, which can in turn appeal to considering companies. 

In the long term, however, to see low-carbon shopping become sustainable in the future, it is of utmost importance to promote carbon footprint reduction through campaigns and education. Without external rewards or psychological cues, we will only keep using carbon labels once we internalise climate-friendly shopping into our moral values, like energy-saving and recycling. Ultimately, we all must acknowledge one thing: in order to secure a promising future for our mother planet, everyone’s carbon footprint counts, and there’s no better time to act than right now.

Featured image by: Flickr 

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