Are you ready to go on a carbon diet?
British retailer displays 'carbon footprint' label on everyday items. US retailers are hesitant to follow.
In Britain, carbon footprinting – used initially to broadly measure environmental impact across a company's entire operations – is morphing into an eco-labeling tool.Skip to next paragraph
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Earlier this year, the British supermarket chain Tesco began labeling some of its 70,000 products to reflect the carbon released in the their production, transport, and consumption. The 3,729 store behemoth, the world's fourth-largest retailer, now has 20 carbon-labeled items on its shelves, core items such as orange juice and laundry detergent.
The intent, said Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy, is to educate and empower consumers to make informed decisions about their purchases.
But some observers question whether such labels are providing consumers with information that they neither want nor understand. This past April, Forum for the Future, a green think tank in London, issued a report on carbon labeling, noting the danger in providing information without context to consumers.
"Only a handful of our focus group participants associated carbon emissions [and climate change] with what they buy in the shops," the report concluded. "The majority knew that carbon emissions are linked with cars, airplanes, and factories. They made that connection because they can 'see' the emissions, which makes them easy to interpret as being 'bad for the environment.' However, the link between products and climate change was less intuitive to them."
According to the Carbon Trust, a private company backed by the British government to accelerate development of climate-change technologies, 80 percent of a product's emissions arise further back in the supply chain – before consumer usage.
As British consumers grapple with the new labels, retailers in the United States are taking a limited approach.
Right now, "incremental change" is as far as most US companies want to go, says Joel Makower, a sustainability consultant who is also cofounder and executive editor of Greener World Media Inc., in Oakland, Calif.
Most companies don't understand their full environmental impacts, he says.
Those making efforts to examine their carbon footprints often do so without transparency – essential to generating both customer support and supply-chain innovation.
At Wal-Mart, consumer transparency is largely tied in to its corporate press releases, a growing assortment of eco-labeled products, and in-store awareness campaigns. A more robust effort is the company's "Love, Earth" jewelry, which enables customers to use the Internet to map where the jewelry's gold and silver were mined and manufactured, including information on how the mines manage cyanide and waste dumps.