Attention Green Shoppers Carbon Confusion

To help shoppers make green choices, companies are slapping carbon labels on products. But even if the public can interpret the information, will it help reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

By Heather Green and Kerry Capell


Greener produce? Tesco plans to put carbon labels on all its products.
AFP

Greener produce? Tesco plans to put carbon labels on all its products.

Next time you're in a shoe store, pick up a pair of clogs or leather walking shoes from Timberland. Inside, right by the heel, you'll find a single number that tells you how "green" the shoe is. This number is explained in a card in the shoe box that provides a 0-to-10 carbon rating. A zero means less than 2.5 kilograms of carbon and other greenhouse gases were emitted when the shoe was produced and shipped. And a 10? That's a whopping 100 kg, roughly equal to the carbon released if you drive a car 240 miles.

There's a simple premise behind the new label. Our everyday activities, whether making pancakes or jetting across the sky, are linked to the combustion of fuel, which releases gases that contribute to global warming. Timberland believes climate-conscious shoppers will buy shoes that help them cut their carbon count. And those same customers will feel more loyal to the brand because Timberland respects their wishes.

Sixty different Timberland products sport such numbers. They reflect both the "carbon footprint" of the shoes and other factors, such as the quantities of harmful chemicals used to make them. By 2010, Timberland plans to put the labels on all its shoes and clothing, and others companies are set to follow its lead. The goal, says Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz, is "to arm consumers with as much information as we can."

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But will shoppers really be able to interpret such information? And even if the tags catch on, will they make a difference in reducing greenhouse gases?

Experts are divided on these questions. Climate scholars point out that it's almost impossible to distill into a single number the intricacies of carbon chemistry, manufacturing processes, supply chains -- and how they all affect global warming. And the very idea of doing so is controversial. Last spring, Britain-based Tesco, the world's third-largest retailer, announced plans to make public how much carbon is released in the production, transport, and consumption of all 70,000 products on its supermarket shelves. The plan immediately drew howls of protests from manufacturers, who thought the burden of measuring emissions would land on their shoulders. Global environmental groups declared labels a distraction from more important corporate efforts to improve energy efficiency. Shoppers, meanwhile, seemed confused by the first such tags that appeared on store shelves, except when they were part of a larger education campaign. "It requires leadership, commitment, and pressure to make something like this happen," says Edgar Blanco, a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied carbon labels. "The truth is, no one knows how to educate consumers about this, or how it will work."

The skeptics certainly have a point. Yet many shoppers are eager to understand how their own activities affect the environment. In a survey last summer by AccountAbility, a nonprofit that advises corporations and governments on sustainable business practices, nearly half of 2,734 US and British consumers polled said they wanted to know which products caused the least harm.

A Bewildering Maze

Tesco CEO Sir Terry Leahy pushed carbon labels into the public spotlight in January, 2007, when he talked about labeling everything sold in its Wal-Mart-like stores, from bags of parsley to flat-panel TVs. "Customers tell us they want our help to do more in the fight against climate change," Leahy said in a speech announcing the plan. The idea was that the solitary numbers on the labels would make it easy for shoppers to compare products. In fact, each number represents a bewildering maze of "inputs," such as how much fertilizer must be produced and spread to grow a bunch of parsley, how much gasoline is used to transport it from the farm, and the electricity required to make the plastic packages. Companies have different ideas about how to present this information. Walkers, a unit of PepsiCo, took an approach similar to Tesco's. Acting on its own, it put a simple label on its 35-gram bags of cheese and onion potato chips that says "75 grams of CO2." Boots, Britain's largest pharmacy chain, took a different tack last summer. Experimenting with labels on its Botanics shampoo, it used signs in its stores to provide the explanation -- much as Timberland relies on fact sheets in the shoe box.

Pioneers like Tesco and Boots understand they're in the midst of a Europe-wide crackdown on greenhouse gas emissions, and that if they don't act on reducing carbon, they could get slammed with punitive regulations. Since 2005 major carbon emitters such as power plants and oil refineries within the European Union have been forced to curtail greenhouse gases. This summer a climate change bill is expected to be signed into law, making Britain the first country in the world to introduce legally binding CO2 reduction targets. The new law, aimed at lowering Britain's emissions 20 percent by 2010, will extend the cap on carbon to large, non-energy-intensive businesses such as retailers, hotel chains, and banks. Retailer Marks & Spencer, for one, has an ambitious plan to become carbon-neutral and send zero waste to landfills by 2012.

Carbon labels were a logical outgrowth of the crackdown on greenhouse gases, which is also playing out in Washington and many state capitals. Timberland, for example, is pushing other shoemakers to agree on an industry standard. But companies heading down this path might learn from the challenges encountered by the pioneers.

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