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Carbon Labels: A Key Element in Climate Change Education

Carbon labeling for consumer goods is a concept full of promise and complexity. Providing end-users with information about the CO2 produced in the manufacturing, transportation, and disposal of products is a logical step in a world where NGOs, businesses, and governments are focused on reducing the impact carbon has on the health of our planet. Over the past five years, these three groups have each played a role in developing and implementing carbon labels. Today, carbon cataloging for all products appears inevitable and will allow shoppers around the world to more easily make purchasing decisions that help protect the Earth.

In 2006 Carbon Trust, a United Kingdom non-profit, developed the Carbon Reduction Label in an attempt to document the amount of carbon released during the lifecycle of a product and then pass that data onto consumers. The label was designed to show the carbon footprint of common items sold in the United Kingdom, such as detergent and cookies, and was implemented by several well-known companies that include Tesco and Walkers Crisps.

Around the same time, the US based footwear and clothing manufacturer Timberland was developing a “nutritional label” for their products. Their sticker assessed the effect of the company’s manufacturing practices on the health of the environment and the communities in which their plants operated. Initially, the same information appeared on all Timberland products, but in January 2007 their eco-labeling idea matured into the Green Index™ rating system that focuses on the impact of individual products. Ranking each item based on climate impact, chemicals used, and resources consumed allows Timberland to then rate their goods using a 0 – 10 system, with 0 being the lowest environmental impact. The Green Index™, the first eco-rating system for the apparel industry, is still in use and shows the tendency for markets to define their own sustainability standards.

Sweden’s government moved into the carbon labeling arena in 2008 when the Nutrition Department of their National Food Administration was asked to create new guidelines that encompass reducing climate change as well as maintaining human health. Earlier research suggested that up to 25% of an individual’s carbon footprint is associated with their diet. This incredible statistic shows that in addition to reducing my driving and flying, what I choose to bring into my kitchen affects my personal carbon emissions. This information means that seeking alternative sources of energy for my home and what I decide to order when eating out are both important ways in which I can help combat global warming.

By moving toward carbon labeling, Sweden’s actions are saying that providing consumers with more information will enable them to be better stewards of our natural world and that it is the role of government to push industry toward making CO2 information available. This is a wonderful step in the right direction, yet I see some challenges with including carbon emission counts alongside food in restaurants and at grocery stores.

The most obvious hurdle is defining who will be responsible for measuring carbon and which standards they will follow. In Sweden, emissions labeling is currently only a recommendation and each producer is asked to conduct its own research. The government has funded general studies on the nation’s staple products, but because there are multiple factors, including soil conditions, fertilizer use, degree of processing, packaging material, and length of transportation, companies such as Max, Sweden’s version of McDonald’s, are working to define the footprints of their specific menu items. The nation’s largest food co-op, Lantmannen, which is owned by 40,000 Swedish farmers, is also conducting CO2 emission audits for many of its products and placing its findings in supermarkets across the country.

The guidelines put forth by Sweden’s National Food Administration are now under review by other European Union (EU) countries. It will be interesting to see where the process goes from here. I am very encouraged that the development of carbon counting is already underway and am confident that EU programs could act as a models for how to roll out CO2 emission labels for food in America. Despite this forward progress, not all parties are in agreement that carbon labeling is a good idea. A 2009 study by the NCCR Trade Regulation finds both the lack of one standard certifying organization and the idea of creating a multi-national validation process reason for concern. Their paper states that “no widely accepted system of labeling exists, and creating one raises a number of questions on the global political and economic levels.” Not having a third party accreditation system in place is a valid concern as is the existence of too many organizations offering validation, something with which many industries struggle. Developing an international system would be difficult, but not impossible.

The second concern with carbon labels revolves around consumer education. Will people understand what the carbon numbers mean? When nutritional labels were introduced across the US in 1994, there was a steep learning curve. Even though much of the population already knew the terms being used, such as fat, protein, sodium, and carbohydrates, most of us did not fully understand how much fiber was enough and how the three different types of fats might affect our health. It has taken both public and private educational campaigns to bring us up to speed on why and how we should be reading nutritional labels and all the while dietary guidelines continue to change. It is prudent to expect the same ramp up time and on-going configuration when carbon emissions information is added to a food label already complex with nutritional analysis.

These organizational hurdles I have outlined are not specific to the food industry and will have to be managed across all sectors of the economy. Despite the trials, I believe CO2 labels will become ubiquitous over the next five years. The idea is similar in many ways to the model Climate Counts has developed. Climate Counts is one of my favorite organizations because it works to empower consumers in making purchasing decisions based on how companies are handling their climate change responsibilities. It ranks businesses in a variety of industries against a score card that evaluates what each company is doing to reduce its impact on the warming atmosphere. Educated consumers are then able to effect change as they have always done, by voting with their wallet for the type of company that takes its CO2 emissions management seriously.

The role of individuals can easily be seen when the discussion is brought back to the importance of carbon labels on food. Imagine going into a restaurant and ordering a pizza made with local goat cheese and organic vegetables. It would have a low CO2 count and most likely a slightly higher price than a pizza from the same establishment made with pepperoni and mozzarella sourced from a major distributor, which would have a higher emission label and a corresponding lower price. As with many Swedes, some US consumers will not change their eating habits, but opportunities to steadily transform people’s patterns abound. How many of us have been torn between two items at the supermarket or at the local grill? I have a feeling that understanding the true cost of what we purchase to the well-being the planet will move a significant portion of the population to choose the product or meal with the lower CO2 rating. They may not always make choices based on emissions information but if enough people do so occasionally, the combined impact of their decisions will create significant change.

I have been reading articles for several years that extol the virtues of a plant-based diet and I’ve noticed that the theme of these pieces has increasingly moved from personal health to the well-being of the planet. In addition to the goals of generating all of their country’s energy from non-carbon based fuels by 2020 and not allowing the sale of fossil fuel powered vehicles by 2030, Sweden has researched what else they can do to help reduce their country’s carbon emissions. By rolling out the inclusion of CO2 emission information with one of the most common items in our day-to-day lives, they have pioneered a system that has the power to transform the way we look at our food and the way we interact with our planet.

I am very hopeful that despite the logistical challenges, carbon emissions labels on food and other consumer products will soon be as common as nutritional information and material labels. I foresee both governments and NGOs playing a role in developing the programs as well as educating consumers on how to decipher CO2 figures. And I believe that providing people with carbon information is the best way for them to make informed decisions about how their actions affect our changing climate.

Matt Courtland of The Natural Strategy educates people on sustainable business practices while reconnecting them to the energy and inspiration found in nature.

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13 thoughts on “Carbon Labels: A Key Element in Climate Change Education

  1. This whole article is a like a dream, built on a fallacy in the twilight zone of a farce. Carbon is NOT the source of climate change. The climate changes without humans suffering from a guilt complex. Take the blinders off, people! It ain’t happenin.

  2. Marcia, climate absolutely changes without humans. We can see this when scientists look at historical temperature records. We also see that the current rapid rise in temperature is unprecedented and corresponds with the Industrial Revolution, a time when humans began burning fossil fuels on a large scale and releasing a tremendous amount of carbon into the atmosphere.

    You appear to be using science to tell the world that climate changes without humans but are ignoring recent science that says humans now play a part in climate change. Selecting certain facts to fit your theory and ignoring other facts exposes your myopic view of the subject. Carbon has a real effect on our warming planet and its changing weather. I believe carbon labels provide information that will help reduce this green house gas and will be commonplace in the near future.

  3. Thanks Matthew for the great article and response. I am currently conducting research on labeling and information visualization. I am working on a comparative landscape of labeling and consumer aides at point of purchase locations. Have you taken a look at the GoodGuide, carbon counted, project label, scryve, barcoo or others? The UK also has the Carbon Council as part of the European Institute of Supply Chains which is working with Nordic to put rfid on products to track carbon impacts.

    Great article interested in continuing the conversation.


  4. Thank you for your comments, Peter. Your research sounds very interesting and I would be happy to continue the conversation. I am familiar with some of the organization you mentioned and would like to learn more. You can find my contact information on my website.

  5. the article worthy reading and action. the ultimate action to address sustainabilty has to come from two quarters – the businesses – who who take, make and waste and the consumers who use and waste. The carbon labeling will educate consumers to unedrastand their carbon impacts and help them opt for low carbon choices. But as Matt emphasizse the challenge is to have an universal and credible labeling system/scheme in plac.

  6. MISSING: Global Warming, Answers to the name of climate change, climate, pollution, Greenhouse gas, CO2, witch burning, omen worship, superstition and Disco science and now?…..? Continued support of the climate control mistake is hurting the planet, killing respect for scientists and dividing progressivism.
    How could this unstoppable warming crisis have been real and worth the sacrifice for costly CO2 mitigation, when Obama himself didn’t say a single word about the “CRISIS” in his STATE OF THE UNION ADDRESS? Even Obomber is as DENEIR now. Did the saintly scientists put up a fuss? No. Why?
    The majority of voters now are former believers so you lazy copy and paste news editors are jokes for the history books and never to be respected again, not to mention the disco scientists who also brought us germ warfare, cruise missiles, nuclear waste, pesticides and finally climate control by humans. Their exaggerations were criminal. Climate Change did to science and journalism what abusive priests and suicide bombers did for religion. If there were consequences for condemning billions of children to death, none of us would have take part in this mass insanity of climate change.
    Voters had the real consensus that counted and as bible thumping Republicans are to the neocons, so were the fear mongering climate change believers to progressivism. leaving Climate change the Iraq War for the left. Move on, for children’s sake because real civilized and real progressive loving people were happy a crisis was averted. History is watching this madness.

  7. Thanx for the info Matthew, this seems increasingly in line with what I sense as the direction we are taking – to be responsible for our own emissions. This seems to be an emerging discipline(?) and clearly will need time to embed, in addition, I wonder when individual carbon credits will become a reality. I agree it is difficult to get a handle on the amount of CO2 embodied in a product – I use everyday objects – e.g. 1 litre bottle of milk = 1kg, typically in U.K. we emit 30kgs/person/day. Likewise as with Peter I would like to continue this conversation – contact me thru website.

  8. Marcia needs to go back to seventh grade and take Earth Science. something called the carbon cycle and latent energy, and what a greenhouse gas is. greenhouse gases are vital to life on Earth because they keep the planet at livable temps. but too much is a bad thing and this has nothing to do with religion or democrats

    nice going Matt and maybe Marcia could learn from my virtual world fields trips!

    one day people will become more scientifically literate *yes, i am naive* =)

  9. This seems like an excellent idea – pure, simple awareness, now standard with everything you buy.

    On a somewhat related note, if we can measure the cost in terms of resources (CO2) for individual products accurately enough, might we be able to attribute a value directly to the resources themselves.

    I wonder if there will ever be a shift from a currency based on precious metals, to one based on Carbon in some manner.

  10. Manmohan Yadav, thank you for your comments. I agree that both business and consumer actions are required to decrease the amount of carbon being put into our atmosphere. The Indian Institute of Forest Management appears to be doing important work. Please keep it up.

  11. Love NOT CO2 FEAR, your take on the global warming is interesting. Thank you for sharing your thoughts but I do not agree with your reasoning. Obama’s State of the Union speech was an attempt to bring a divided nation together and brining up such a politically charged topic would have done the opposite. The vast majority of scientists around the world agree that climate change is a real phenomena and is caused by humans.

  12. Thank you for your comments, Mark. Your website is full of informative tips and I enjoyed seeing your personal carbon footprint calculations for the past two years. I look forward to staying in touch.

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