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Environmental labelling will be useless unless well prepared

By Katie Bird , 10-Feb-2010
Last updated the 12-Nov-2010 at 17:11 GMT

Unique packaging and a well known brand name catch your eye amid the crowd of products jostling for attention. You saw the advert and it promised youthful miracles, but can you afford it… in terms of your carbon footprint, I mean?

While today this may not be the discourse of the millions of consumers visiting the cosmetics counters worldwide, some believe it could, and should, be the future. But, are we going about it in the right way?

Environment labelling for all kinds of consumer products is a hot topic, and in some markets, such as France, it is likely to become a reality quicker than most anticipate.

Flaunting a product’s environmental credentials on the label may seem the next logical step in a world where consumers are demanding increasing information about potential purchases before they put their trust in them.

And, in theory it should benefit the environment. If companies know that they will be forced to air their dirty environmental laundry to the public, maybe they will clean up their act.

However, the proposition is far from simple and if it is to be successful demands much more in terms of discussion, resources and time, than is currently being given to it.

Carbon dioxide labelling

The UK organization the Carbon Trust has led the way in carbon labelling with its carbon reduction scheme. The black footprint logo with values and information within it can be found on an increasing number of goods, but how informative is it to the consumer?

Built into the label is a pledge from the company using it to reduce the value shown on the ticket, the importance of which should not be underestimated in an environmental sense.

However, despite the number of products bearing the symbol steadily rising in retail stores on both sides of the Atlantic, relatively few, if any, consumers can tell you what constitutes a respectable example of carbon dioxide emissions for a certain product.

Without a reference for what are good, bad and downright ugly values for carbon dioxide emissions, the proposition is markedly less useful, if not useless.

One suggestion is that, as with calorie counts, consumers will become increasingly aware of the different values and can calculate how much carbon dioxide they wish to ‘spend’ on a certain product.

However, unlike calorie count, there are no daily guidelines.

In 1980 the USDA Food and Nutrition Information Center published its first daily dietary guidelines for Americans. This was a full decade before the country introduced the mandatory nutrition labeling system that we know today.

There are no environmental labeling guidelines. What our personal daily carbon dioxide emissions should amount to and how that should be divided up between the products we consume and our daily actions, has not yet been published. And, whether it ever could be is highly questionable.

Comparisons between products

Another way of making the raw numbers meaningful is by being able to compare values within product families. For this to be successful a large number of manufacturers have to put the system in place and everyone has to be measuring the same thing in the same way, which is likely to be challenging.

In addition, there are notoriously large margins of error for life cycle assessment calculations, which makes even the raw numbers of questionable worth when comparing values that are only marginally different from each other.

Furthermore, with no benchmark or guidelines of a daily allowance, comparing raw numbers could simply inform the purchasing public that most manufacturers of a certain type of product are just as good, or bad, as each other.

Industry consensus

While reaching an industry-wide consensus on these complex issues is not impossible, it demands significant resources and time, and will not happen overnight.

Such a consensus could not simply exist in a country or regional vacuum, either. Consumer goods, especially cosmetics and personal care products, are global merchandise and their manufacturers are international companies. Agreement must be reached between areas that wish to keep international distribution open.

And added to this already complex situation are the multiple environmental criteria to be measured. As consumers we are arguably not saving the environment if we choose a product that has half the carbon dioxide emissions, but double the water usage. As manufacturers, reducing only the one and increasing all the others is far from responsible.

The proposed plan in France, as part of the recently passed Grenelle law, is to communicate a number of environmental criteria, of which carbon dioxide is mandatory and the others are to be decided as a function of the nature of the product.

Again, this means that manufacturers of certain products, likely in conjunction with the country’s environment agency, must reach agreement on what criteria should be measured for each product family.

France is to make this mandatory from January 2011.

As much as this is a very respectable initiative, its value will be jeopardized if manufacturers and consumers are not fully prepared.

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