By all means cut carbon dioxide emissions to help your business, but don’t boast about it to customers

It sounds like the perfect plan. To help customers “go green”, brands tell shoppers what effect their purchases are having on global warming. Concerned, shoppers reconsider what to buy and opt for goods that cause less harm to the planet. Brands respond with more “low carbon” products and western per capita emissions fall. Green capitalism is go.

The question, however, is how to give customers this information. One proposal catching on in the UK is “carbon labels”. These show customers the amount of “embedded carbon” in an individual product. In other words, the total amount of carbon dioxide emitted from every stage of an item’s production and distribution.

A number of brands are working with the UK government-funded Carbon Trust to pilot a label scheme. In time they hope that shoppers, as they wise up to the idea, will start comparing different carbon labels and reward brands with lower carbon footprints.

Click here if you would like to hear from Neil Campbell, the CEO of Walkers, about the company's experience with carbon labelling - what works, what doesn't

But like all the best laid plans, the carbon label experiment is proving hard to make work. There are four main problems.

First, carbon labels assume that customers not only care about their carbon footprint but actually understand what that term means. A Boots customer survey found that fewer than a third of shoppers knew a carbon footprint had something to do with climate change.

Of the few customers that do understand the notion of carbon footprints, even fewer are able to judge whether the 75 grammes of carbon contained in a crisp packet, for example, is small, average, or too much. How many 75g-carbon crisps can you eat in a week before endangering the planet, let alone the waistline?

What’s more, almost half of Boots’s customers confused the carbon labels on its own-brand shampoo with Fairtrade, the label promising to raise incomes of small farmers in poor countries. Here is a second risk to carbon labels: customers are already overwhelmed with ethical product claims. Any more information could simply be ignored.

{event} Climate Change Summit 2008

Third, the Carbon Trust scheme is hampered by the fact that in one year, just 12 leading companies, plus supermarket Tesco, have signed up. This means customers are far from being in a position to compare the performance of different brands.

Fourth, doubts hang over the way the Carbon Trust measures carbon footprints. Pilot firm and UK stone company Marshalls told Ethical Corporation it has misgivings about the technical standard used under the scheme, which it fears is not yet “credible or comparable”.

In their defence, carbon labels are still in the experimental phase and general climate change awareness in its infancy. The term carbon footprint itself was unheard of just a few years ago.

Yet carbon labels face an identity crisis. Under the Carbon Trust scheme, brands are being asked to do two things: make their operations more energy efficient and communicate this to customers.

Looking behind the label

The Carbon Trust wants to translate these energy savings that a company makes into a marketing tool, appealing to customers who worry about climate change. But all of the brands taking part in the carbon label scheme say its real benefit lies not in attracting customers, but in making farms, factories and internal processes more efficient. This is hardly the “come buy, come buy” message to appeal to shoppers.

Companies interviewed for this month’s cover story, from page 18, say carbon labels have only limited marketing potential. Labels can add credibility to a brand, but they are not the best way of communicating a green message to customers. This raises the question: if the real value of carbon labels is operational – as companies say it is – then why put them on products at all?

Firms say the Carbon Trust scheme provides a reason to examine their supply chains and look closely at where to make energy savings. When companies sign up to the scheme they pledge to cut a product’s carbon footprint within two years – or face losing the right to use the label.
That is all very well, if this is the goal of carbon labels. If the idea is to change customer behaviour, then carbon labels can only ever be a bit player in that much harder game.

Carbon labels will not prompt a green revolution in spending habits on the UK high street. While more information is always a good thing, that information should know its place. In the case of carbon labels, it seems that it is ultimately in small letters on the back of a packet, just above the E-numbers.

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