climate change consumerism shopping

The end of the road for carbon labeling?

This week supermarket chain Tesco announced that they have dropped their plans to introduce carbon footprint labeling across their range. It doesn’t come as much of a surprise.

The project was announced in January 2007, and 15 months later the first 20 products hit the shelves. Crisps, orange juice and light bulbs were among the items bearing a small carbon footprint notice on the packaging, informing consumers about the carbon content of their shopping.

20 items down, 69,980 product lines to go. Tesco dutifully plodded on, adding another 125 products or so a year. As some have pointed out, at that rate it would have taken them hundreds of years to get to the end of the inventory. With consumers taking little interest in something that was expensive and fiendishly complicated to implement, it’s rather predictable that Tesco is abandoning the target. It always was ambitious, and it always was, well, just not very useful….

Here’s what I wrote for Celsias about carbon footprint labeling in 2008:

It’s a nice idea, but I’ve got mixed feelings about it. On the one hand you have to admire the boldness of it all, and giving consumers the information to choose for themselves has got to be a good thing. On the other hand, I’m not sure it works yet. I looked up the labeling system myself on a packet of Walkers crisps recently, and discovered that the snack-sized bag had a carbon footprint of 75 grams of CO2. That’s mildly interesting, but not especially useful. 75g is more than the weight of the product itself, I notice, but without any comparison or standard, there’s no way of knowing if that’s good or bad. I can understand concepts like organic or fair trade because I know what they are. I can use initiatives like energy efficiency ratings, because they give me a top and a bottom. This little CO2 figure is different – it’s just so abstract. Perhaps it’s an early adoption problem, and when all the other products have labels too maybe I’ll be able to make a genuine choice. But even then, how many people are going to choose a snack on the basis of CO2 emissions, rather than taste, or price?

Still, perhaps the market will surprise me and there’ll be a race to the bottom as companies compete for the lowest possible footprint. In the meantime, I’ll be continuing to apply my own guidelines for lowering CO2 emissions – buy fresh, buy local, and above all, buy less. That’s a message you’re unlikely to hear from a supermarket.

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