Carbon Footprint Labels

Do you look for carbon-footprint labels on goods when shopping? If you do, you are in a small minority. The practice of adding labels to foods and other products, showing the quantity (in grams) of carbon-dioxide emissions associated with making and transporting them, began in 2007 when the world’s first such labels were applied to a handful of products sold in Britain. The idea was that carbon labels would let shoppers identify products with the smallest carbon footprints, just as other labels already indicate dolphin-friendly tuna, organic milk or Fairtrade coffee. Producers would compete to reduce the carbon footprints of their products, and consumers would be able to tell whether, for example, locally made goods really were greener than imported ones.

Carbon labels have yet to become as widely recognised by consumers as other eco-labels, however. A survey carried out in 2010 by Which?, a British consumer group, found that just a fifth of British shoppers recognised the carbon footprint label, compared with recognition rates of 82% for Fairtrade and 54% for organic labelling. This is understandable, because carbon labelling is a much more recent development—organic labelling dates back to the 1970s, and Fairtrade to the late 1980s—and the right ways to do it are still being worked out. Adding a carbon label to a product is a complex and often costly process that involves tracing its ingredients back up their respective supply chains and through their manufacturing processes, to work out their associated emissions. According to 3M, an American industrial giant that makes over 55,000 different products, this can cost $30,000 for a single product. To further confuse matters, different carbon footprinting and labelling standards have emerged in different countries, preventing direct comparisons between the various types of label.

Even so, proponents of carbon labels now see encouraging signs of progress. In Britain, a pioneer in carbon labelling, nine out of ten households bought products with carbon labels last year, albeit mostly unwittingly, and total sales of such products exceeded-

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