The Impact of Carbon Labelling

The idea behind carbon labelling is to introduce new information onto the labels of food sold in supermarkets to show how much carbon dioxide has been produced in making that food and getting it to that supermarket. The first food to have carbon emissions information on its label was Walkers crisps. Walkers worked with the Carbon Trust for two years before adding the information about the carbon footprint of its product in March 2007.

The Carbon Trust used complex calculations and considered every stage involved in the production of the crisps. Where the potatoes were grown, the manufacturing process, the source of the packaging, the transport of the crisps to the supermarket and the impact of disposing of the empty packet once the crisps were eaten, were all considered. At the end of this evaluation, it was apparent that each packet of crisps, which weighed about 35g, produced nearly twice its own weight of carbon dioxide as it was produced. Its carbon footprint was 75g.

What Difference Did the Labelling Make to Walkers?

The actual process of working out the carbon footprint in the first place told the manufacturer quite a lot about the environmental impact of their product. They immediately tried to look for methods to reduce this footprint, looking at all stages of the production process. Even a small reduction on each packet of crisps has a sizeable impact overall, when you consider how many packets of crisps Walker’s produces each year. To put this in perspective, latest figures show that, worldwide, 11 million packets are eaten every day…

What Impact Did Labelling Have on the Public?

To find out the answer to this question, Walkers commissioned some independent research to find out what people thought of the labelling. One investigation was done in July 2007, just three months after the labelling began, the next in February 2008, when the scheme had been operating for almost a year.

The concept of carbon labelling did receive quite a lot of publicity and media coverage but the finding that as many as 78% of people had heard about it is still quite surprising. An even higher proportion (85%) of people who said they were concerned about environmental issues had heard of it. However, the reaction to the actual labelling was mixed. About a third of people thought the labelling was good and would help them make informed choices when shopping, so that they could, in small ways, reduce the impact of their food on the environment. About a fifth thought that it wouldn’t necessarily make a difference but thought it was a good idea. 21 per cent of customers regarded the labelling as just a gesture and thought it would have no impact.

How Many Saw the Walker’s Label?

The number of people interviewed who had also actually seen one of the Walker’s labels was only 17% in July 2007, but this rose over the next few months and 32% remembered seeing one of the labels at the start of 2008.

What Other Foods Have Carbon Labelling?

Very few seem to have as yet. The supermarket giant Tesco has committed about £5 million pounds to research how to calculate the carbon footprint of many of the foods and other products that it sells, but all the calculations are still to be done. Some products now have an aeroplane symbol showing how many miles they have travelled so that you can easily identify foods that are likely to have a big footprint, but the scheme still has some way to go before carbon footprint labelling is introduced.

The concept of carbon labelling has also been proposed in other countries and some progress towards introducing labels has been made in Japan and Sweden. The Japanese system will be one of the most rigorous and has been based on pilot schemes run in the UK, which involved Tesco and others. The method of labelling being proposed is very detailed and will appear on drink, food and other products such as washing powder and other detergent products and electrical items.

The Future for Carbon Labelling

Although the schemes are very much in their infancy at the moment, the next decade should see great leaps forward in how products are labelled. In ten years time, we will think nothing of looking at the carbon footprint of a food, it will be as commonplace as looking at the price, or the fat content.