Can you calculate the carbon cost of your shopping?

Companies are being encouraged to go green by taking up a new scheme for displaying the carbon footprint of their products. E&T wonders if this might encourage marketing greenwash?

Many consumers want the products they buy to be 'greener', and research carried out with shoppers in recent years shows they welcome some kind of 'environmental friendliness' label on goods. Labels giving the carbon footprint of a product suggest the company is actively trying to be more sustainable and are generally trusted by consumers, who regard them as a green badge for both the brand on the shelf and the shelf it is on.

Tesco, as always, has taken a lead among supermarkets in the UK, this time in developing the latest carbon footprint labels for its own-brand goods. But Walkers Crisps was the true pioneer. It was the first company in Britain to adopt such a label on its products last year - the now-familiar 'Carbon Trust' label which says that a Walkers packet of crisps has a carbon footprint of 75g.

Both the Tesco and Walkers labels have been created in partnership with the Carbon Trust, a government-funded organisation that has been working with the British Standards Institute (BSI) to develop a single "robust" method for measuring the carbon footprints of products and translating these into a consumer label.

At the end of October the Carbon Trust, BSI and a government minister unveiled the final blueprint for measuring carbon footprinting, the "publicly available specification" known as PAS 2050. This set of guidelines is the result of trials in the past 18 months with 75 companies which have included not only Tesco and Walkers but also Boots, Cadbury, Coca-Cola and the Co-operative Group.

Unveiling the PAS 2050 guidelines, Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said: "Companies have said that they want to be able to count their carbon emissions in a better way, and we have responded to that. Consumers want to know that emissions are being cut by businesses and this standard will help businesses do that."

PAS 2050 is aptly named. The government has set itself a target of reducing the UK's greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent from 1990 levels by 2050. While the trials of PAS 2050 have focused on food and drink companies, the new measurement standard is supposed to provide various manufacturing and services sectors with a method for measuring the greenhouse-gas emissions of all phases of a product's lifecycle, from its raw materials to its manufacture, distribution, consumer usage and final disposal, according to the Carbon Trust.

But can a shopper looking at the latest carbon footprint label on products in a Tesco or rival store really rely on the claim that the products' footprints have been measured "throughout their entire lifecycle", as stated in the press release announcing PAS 2050? This could be taken to imply that the footprint is the fullest measure of a product's lifecycle going right from cradle to grave - from its inception as an idea to its final disposal, with all carbon-producing aspects of its life included along the way.

Indeed, some experts and campaigners say the guidelines still exclude too many factors to be truly robust. These exclusions include the energy used by workers in a factory to operate machinery or hand-pick goods, for example. While companies are supposed to measure and include in their labelling the 'use-phase emissions' - the carbon footprint of a product's usage, such as the energy involved in cooking dried chick peas - there is no measure of the shopper's own transport carbon footprint, nor that of the factory staff.

Carbon cost of manufacture

More significantly, says one expert, PAS 2050 fails to take into account the emissions arising from the production of the very equipment that is used in factories to produce or process the goods - known as the 'capital' aspect of the product lifecycle.

Dr John Barrett was one of a team of academics from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at York University, UK, which was commissioned by the government to assess the draft of the PA 2050 guidelines at the beginning of this year. Barrett says: "In making a t-shirt, none of the machinery used to make it is taken into account [in PAS 2050], but this machinery can have an enormous carbon footprint.

"The efficiency of the machine is taken into account but the impact of producing and maintaining the machine is not."

For Barrett the carbon footprint labelling process for companies is not just about cutting their emissions, although clearly the process does encourage them to do so. "It's a brand exercise," he says. "Multinational companies have a major job to do in persuading the public that they provide a sustainable product. It's easy for a company to take part in the exercise [to trial PAS 2050] and show they are part of the debate."

Barrett is also sceptical about the usefulness of the Carbon Trust footprint labels for consumers, who often do not have comparative information on different brands of similar products to enable them to make a real choice. "I'm interested to know what consumers do with this information," he says. "I'm a carbon expert and I don't know what [the label] means on a packet of Walkers crisps. Am I going to carry a little calculator with me to see whether I should buy it?"

However, the more recent Carbon Trust labels now being used by Tesco and some other companies are regarded by some experts in the carbon-footprinting field as improved 'second generation' ones, with Walkers Crisps being among 'first generation' labels. The Tesco labels use a footprint logo and carry more information, as well as advice to consumers.

Professor Adisa Azapagic of the Sustainable Consumption Insititute at Manchester University, which has worked with Tesco and other companies on their carbon footprinting, insists the latest labels are based on "considerable consumer research". She believes that PAS 2050 is important in getting product-lifecycle assessment and carbon footprinting accepted by business "as a working tool".

"It's a move in the right direction. Hopefully we will move on to a third generation of labels," she says, adding: "There's a genuine desire within companies to do something about their carbon footprint. I'm now getting calls daily from companies [for advice] and am having to turn some away. To me it's a huge shift in behaviour and thinking."

Walkers was not able to talk to E&T, but Tesco strongly defends its labels and the use of PA 2050. A Tesco spokeswoman says: "The aim of labelling is empowering consumers to make decisions on what they buy. Our label says the carbon footprint is 'X' and we are committed to continuing to reduce it."

She adds: "You can never look at carbon labelling for a totally accurate measure, and calling it 'greenwash' implies it has no substance."

Carbon Trust manufacturing loophole

For the Carbon Trust, BSI and the government, PAS 2050 represents a significant milestone in setting a single, consistent and simplified methodology for companies to work with, rather than the variety of complex lifecycle assessment rules that have been around for years. Moreover, being able to adopt the Carbon Trust label gives companies an incentive to assess the carbon footprint of their supply chains and to actually do what the whole process is about - reducing emissions in consumer goods production.

Dr Graham Sinden, strategy manager at the Carbon Trust, concedes that PAS 2050 is not about ensuring that "every molecule of carbon associated with the product is accounted for". He insists it's simply not possible to assess, for example, all the emissions associated with the manufacture, transport, usage and disposal of every tractor carrying the grain used to make a food product that ends up on the shelves with a Trust footprint label.

And, while only a limited number of companies, most of them multinationals, have worked with the Trust to date, Sinden believes more and more firms will get into carbon labelling now that there's a single measurement standard in PAS 2050.

However, the Trust will be the first to admit the adoption of the standard is entirely voluntary. Walkers packets, for example, are still the only branded crisps in the UK to carry the Trust label - which makes comparisons between crisp brands a non-starter for shoppers. And, while companies have to show that they intend to reduce their emissions - for example, by increasing efficiencies in their production processes or supply chains - an immediate cut is not a precondition of adopting the Trust label.

Andrew Jenkins, sustainable development manager for Boots the Chemists, which has been a leader in trialling the PAS 2050 standard, says companies may still be able to take advantage of a 'loophole' in the footprint process.

"Some companies may put a [Carbon Trust] label on everything and not actually reduce their footprint, and then the label disappears but consumers still think the companies are cutting emissions," he says.

The Carbon Trust points out that, if a company hasn't reduced emissions within the first two years of carrying the label on its products, then the label will be withdrawn by the Trust. It also says it is addressing the issue of potential label abuse with a new code on labelling claims. For example, you won't get away with claiming you've reduced your product's footprint by half without saying what it was reduced from - both the initial and the reduced data may still be high compared with other similar products.

But the wider problem with carbon labelling, say some critics, is that, while the process may encourage companies to become more efficient and commit themselves to 'sustainability', the remit of the labels remains narrow and is still far too primitive to be able to properly inform and educate the public.

Jenkins, a firm supporter of PAS 2050, says that, in adopting the guidelines, some companies may trade off other important actions on sustainability. Jenkins lists "water, waste and biodiversity" as some of these other sustainability issues that, he says, Boots intends to address in the future.

The pressure group Friends of the Earth (FoE) stresses this same point, arguing that companies should be making sure they are being as broadly environmentally friendly as possible. FoE food campaigner Richard Hines says: "A low carbon footprint on a product does not mean the product is entirely environmentally friendly. There could be other issues of deforestation, use of water and social impact to do with the product."

He adds: "We'd support the use of a carbon footprint label if it were used properly. But it's important that companies don't use it for greenwash, in the sense that applying the label was all they had to do."

For other campaigners, the underlying question about carbon labelling is whether it reduces Britain's overall carbon footprint or simply encourages people to keep on consuming with a clearer conscience while letting mulinational manufacturers off the sustainability hook. If such critics are right, the UK government's carbon footprint reduction target for 2050 may prove more elusive than it bargains for.

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