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Labelling your footprint

15 February 2012

Crisp maker Walkers has reduced the carbon footprint of its crisps by 7% - an example of the importance of measuring carbon

Research by British consumer group, Which? in 2010 revealed that while consumer recognition rates for Fairtrade labelling are at 82% and 54% for organic labelling, only a fifth of consumers recognise labels which show the quantity of carbon dioxide emissions associated with making and transporting products.

To an extent, these statistics are inevitable when you consider the longevity of the schemes; Fairtrade was launched in the 1970s and Organic, in the 1990s. The carbon footprint label is still in its infancy, it was only launched to UK consumers four years ago.

And skeptics might argue there is a question as to how much recognition over carbon labelling matters, especially when you consider in Britain, nine of 10 households bought products with carbon labels last year, exceeding sales of £2 billion.

These figures were boosted owing to the fact supermarket giant Tesco embarked on a ‘revolution in green consumption’ in 2007 by promising to put carbon labels on all 70,000 products it sells. Tesco has labelled 500 products and footprinted 1,000, including common everyday favourites such as orange juice and washing detergent.

The move by Tesco is undoubtedly positive but other British retailers are not so keen to follow suit. At a time when almost half the UK’s carbon footprint comes from the products we buy and the services we use, a united front on this issue is the only way to make the scale of carbon savings required to make headway.

With the coalition now shying away from its bold claims that it will be the ‘greenest ever Government,’ there’s a danger that carbon labelling initiatives will remain voluntary and largely unknown in Britain for the short term.

However, across the channel, it’s a different story. Government led, the French carbon labelling initiative is a year-long pilot which began in July. It involves 168 global firms including H&M and Procter & Gamble, across industries including clothing and furniture applying carbon labels to products.

The new rules, devised by Ademe, the French government energy and environment agency, and AFNOR, the French Standards Agency, require labels to show more than just the carbon footprint. Depending on the product category, they must also include other environmental data, such as the product’s water footprint and impact on biodiversity.

The scheme involves an accompanying campaign to raise awareness of the labelling to consumers. If successful, the initiative will become compulsory and apply to all imported goods as well as those made in France from as early as this year. If the scheme becomes mandatory in France, what impact will this have on UK companies exporting to this country?

It’s inevitable the current euro debt crisis will further the likelihood of policies mixing between member states, this means that the French initiative could travel far. We need only look at the fact that the European Commission has released a second draft of a methodology for the uniform environmental footprinting of labels, a document which was discussed in Brussels last month, to understand that carbon emissions disclosure is moving up the agenda.

If the French pilot becomes mandatory, which, when considering the above looks probable, British companies who export whole products or who feed into a product’s supply chain will have to calculate their products environmental footprint in order to adhere to legislation.

Although the coalition is ‘worried about the combined impact of the green policies’ on UK businesses and the economy, it seems eventually, Britain, once a pioneer in this field, will have to introduce such policies, if not for any other reason than to keep up with the rest of the world.

However, companies should look at the benefits to this. Although the process of calculating carbon can be seen as expensive and time consuming, it can ultimately prove a fruitful and money saving exercise.

For example, by calculating the carbon footprint of a packet of cheese and onion crisps – 75 grams - it was found that changing the way the potatoes were traded, Walkers, owned by PepsiCo could save up 9,200 tonnes of carbon emissions and £1.2 million a year. Walkers has subsequently reduced the carbon footprint of its crisps by 7%.

It’s examples such as these which show the value in measuring carbon. Companies which engage in such practices are undoubtedly staying ahead of the curve and becoming more innovative.

Finally, we must not neglect the fact that environmental labels will play a big role to help consumers to reduce their own carbon footprint or at the very least, will give them the relevant details to make informed purchase decisions.

My advice for UK businesses, those exporting to France and those who are not, is to begin work on environmental labelling and carbon footprinting now. Not only will businesses be able to understand the carbon lifecycle of products but armed with this information, they’ll be able to identify carbon and ultimately cost savings too.

* Dr Jean-Yves Cherruault is environmental accounting manager at carbon reduction company, Sustain. He was involved in developing the French carbon labelling initiative www.sustain.co.uk


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