Many of us are used to seeing labels when we pick up a product, whether it’s nutrition facts, directions, or general information. Labels may even influence buying decisions. Some consumers like
to know how or where a product is made for personal reasons; if you want to cut down on your use of plastic, for example, you may choose not to purchase a product made with it.

How might these personal or ethical buying choices be influenced if you knew how much carbon was generated to make a product? Would it – or should it – influence our everyday shopping? 

What is carbon labelling? 

Carbon labelling is a relatively newer trend, in which some companies are choosing to include information about the carbon impact of certain products. A Washington Post article describes it as the estimate of a product’s environmental impact from beginning to end, “reflecting the greenhouse gas emissions or CO2e [carbon dioxide equivalents] spent in its creation, transportation, use and end of life, as measured in grams or kilograms of carbon.”  

The labelling is usually displayed on the product itself, or integrated into the shopping experience. For example, on the popular platform Google Flights, some airlines now have a ‘CO2’ tag, meant to indicate an airline’s approximate carbon dioxide emissions. In the U.K., an independent group known as the Carbon Trust provides information for carbon labelling to many companies and producers – in some cases, companies are coming up with it on their own. 

Overall, the idea behind carbon labelling is that it will increase consumer awareness about the so-called carbon ‘footprint’, of certain products, and in turn, influence consumers to purchase products with a smaller footprint. Ideally, this would encourage companies to reduce emissions, or at least equip consumers with information that will allow them to apply more pressure to higher emitters. 

Problems vs. potential 

At 5REDO, we’ve written about the issue of ‘greenwashing’, in which companies overstate or falsify their environmental efforts in an attempt to attract consumers, and even deflect responsibility for harming the environment. Greenwashing can look like adding a green leaf or recycling symbol on a product that isn’t actually sustainable, or using vague language like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘sustainably sourced’. While there are certainly companies making efforts to be more sustainable, the problem with greenwashing is that it can lure consumers into a sense of false security about the environmental impact of what they buy.  

The problem with carbon labelling, then, is its potential to turn into another form of greenwashing – making companies look good, but ultimately not achieving much. An opinion piece by Enrique Dans for Forbes makes the apt comparison between carbon labelling and nutrition labelling. Decades ago, nutrition information on food packaging was thought to be necessary to educate consumers and encourage healthier behaviours. In North America in particular, it was introduced as a response to rising levels of obesity in adults and children. However, experts say it hasn’t had as much of an impact as expected – at least, it wasn’t a magic bullet solution to the complex issue of weight management in a diverse population.  

Although still early, it may be useful to think of carbon labelling the same way. As the Forbes article asks: as a consumer, would you take it seriously? It’s worth considering what we’re hoping to gain from carbon labelling, and the realistic impact we expect it to have.  

Another problem has to do with who is generating the information for carbon labelling, and how. Every industry has different interactions with and impacts on the environment, and may need to have their carbon footprint calculated by different measures. In other words, context is important. Furthermore, if companies produce the information themselves, can we trust that it is independent and truthful? Should governments intervene with specific regulations and policy?  

Clearly, it’s not as simple as slapping a sticker on a product and expecting consumers to educate themselves. As Enrique Dans writes, “As long as consumers still don’t have a clear idea about the production standards that should set the norm, including quantities on a label can be completely misleading, all that such labelling is likely to do is create misinformation.” We even need to consider whether the so-called benefits would have a detrimental effect; with flights, for example, you may choose an airline that appears to have lower CO2 emissions, but if that encourages you to perhaps fly more frequently, is the benefit negligible?  

As we know with the circular economy, it’s never just about one piece when we look at overhauling our systems and fighting climate change. Carbon labelling is an interesting option to consider, but should ideally exist alongside real climate change efforts on the part of companies and consumers both.