Your Product Carbon Footprint – To Label or Not to Label?

Your Product Carbon Footprint – To Label or Not to Label?

The Global Rise of Carbon Labelling

“A Product Carbon Footprint describes the sum of greenhouse gas emissions accumulated during the full life cycle of a product in a specified application” (PCF Pilot Project Germany, 2009).

Australia pioneered product carbon labels with the Greenhouse Friendly initiative in 2001 for companies wishing to offer carbon neutral products using carbon offsets. The National Carbon Offset Standard (NCOS) replaced the Greenhouse Friendly initiative in 2010.

Internationally, the most well known example is the Carbon Reduction Label launched by the UK Carbon Trust in 2007.

The Carbon Reduction Label was introduced at a time when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had launched the daunting Fourth Assessment Report, Al Gore reached a global audience with An Inconvenient Truth and Europe was leading the way in carbon emission trading. In short, a massive amount of resources and effort were dedicated to stopping climate change, and carbon labelling was seen as a key instrument to reach and empower consumers to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses through responsible consumption.

Britain’s biggest supermarket Tesco saw carbon labelling as an opportunity to drive change and to differentiate themselves as a green retailer. Tesco pledged to label all 70,000 of its products with their carbon footprints using the Carbon Reduction Label. Tesco has since stepped away form this commitment.

Shortly after, Planet Ark and the UK Carbon Trust launched the Carbon Reduction Label in Australia as an alternative to the already established Greenhouse Friendly Scheme. The Carbon Reduction Label offered disclosure of embodied carbon, rather than certified carbon neutrality. In 2010, the retailer ALDI became the first company to join Planet Ark’s Carbon Reduction Label Program in Australia. ALDI’s everyday olive oil range became the first products in Australia to be certified by the Carbon Trust.

After establishing in Australia, the Carbon Reduction Label spread to 19 countries, including China.

A number of specific national carbon labelling schemes have also emerged including the French trial of Environmental Product Declarations, the Swiss climatop label, the Swedish Seal Certification and the Japanese Carbon Footprint Program. These vary as to whether they report performance according to environmental indicators (French and Japanese initiatives) or relative to peers (Swiss and Swedish models).

These labelling schemes draw on international standards that include:

  • PAS 2050: a Publicly Available Specification for the assessment of the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of goods and services was first published in 2008 and then updated in 2011.
  • GHG Protocol: launched in 2011, product standard has been developed by the World Resources Institute and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development.
  • ISO 14067: released in 2013 for carbon footprint of products.

All three standards provide requirements and guidelines on the decisions to be made when conducting a carbon footprint study. These standards provide requirements on specific issues relevant for carbon footprints, including land-use change, carbon uptake, biogenic carbon emissions, soil carbon change, and green electricity. All three standards build on existing life cycle assessment (LCA) methods established through ISO 14040 and ISO 14044.

But this is when carbon footprinting starts to get confusing for most organisations. Which standard should be used? Where do they differ? Which one has the most traction in the market? Will I get a better result using one over another? It’s hardly useful to have three widely recognised international standards when we want globally consistent measurement and reporting of carbon footprints.

Too Many Labels Cause Confusion

In Europe, market research has shown that consumers are confused by the stream of incomparable and diverse environmental information: according to a recent Eurobarometer, 48 % of European consumers are confused by the environmental information they receive. A company wishing to market its product in Europe faces a confusing range of methods and initiatives and might find it needs to apply several of them in order to prove the product’s green credentials in different countries.

In Australia alone there are two carbon labelling schemes (the Carbon Reduction Label and NCOS) along with a range of other certifications and broader ecolabels such as Good Environmental Choice Australia and Global Green Tag, and energy and water star ratings for white goods.

Should Carbon Be Our Sole Focus?

Carbon footprints and labelling play an important role in enabling consumer choice. However the result of single attribute claims is that a product may perform particularly well in one area, at the expense of other environmental or social impacts not measured and communicated. To understand these ‘trade-offs’, and to get a complete picture of environmental impact, a product must be analysed across its entire life cycle, and taking into account a broad range of relevant environmental issues.

Edge Environment have previously reported on this complexity in our publication Life Cycle Assessment as Myth-buster – Taking a life cycle approach to challenge popular environmental beliefs. In this paper we used five examples to illustrate how widespread assumptions about environmental impacts can be overly simplistic and sometimes misleading from a scientific perspective. Few environmental decisions are one-dimensional and clear-cut. Trade-offs between a product’s attributes are today’s reality, and a low carbon footprint doesn’t always mean better for the environment.

Is Carbon Labelling the Way to Go in Australia?

After a decade in the market, the Australian Greenhouse Friendly initiative is only used by a modest number of organisations to certify carbon neutrally of their products (or services as for QANTAS). The NCOS program boasts a little over 30 organisations which are in the Carbon Neutral Network.

The Carbon Reduction Label has also had limited uptake in Australia. There are currently three Australian Carbon Reduction Label Foundation Partners who have earned a label for one of their products – ALDI’s everyday olive oil, the Dyson Airblade Hand dryer range and the Mobius Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc a product of The New Zealand Wine Company.

At the same time, in the business to business arena, product carbon labelling has never really taken off. Leading rating tools such as the Green Building Council Australia’s Green Star and the Infrastructure Sustainability Council Australia’s IS Rating Tool, and Transport for NSW’s Sustainable Design Guidelines are using comprehensive ISO compliant Life Cycle Assessments, ecolabels and Environmental Product Declarations to distinguish and reward the use of green products and materials for construction.

Where to From Here?

The current green market reflects the convenience of using simple concepts, single issues such as carbon labels, rules of thumb and measures to help us reduce our impact on the environment. This is reasonable since we cannot be expected to continuously research and weigh up all implications of our purchasing decisions. But, we need to challenge the use of narrow single attribute product labelling to avoid good intentions having perverse outcomes on the environment.

In day-to-day purchasing decisions, we don’t have time to read scientific reports or evaluate multiple indicator labels. The full complexity of environmental impacts must be captured in the label. ISO compliant ecolabels, Environmental Product Declarations and Life Cycle Assessment are in place to deliver best practice and direction. When used appropriately:

  • Ecolabels are primarily for consumers making day-to-day purchasing decisions
  • Environmental Product Declarations are for business to business communication
  • Life Cycle Assessments are for internal product development, strategy and green marketing campaigns (as well as providing the scientific basis for ecolabels and EPDs).

And while we’re at it, we also need a harmonised approach. Let’s rid ourselves of multiple standards, labels and schemes all trying to do the same thing.

We need more holistic labelling, but with less labels.

If we get it right, we will all feel assured to spend our money on products with labels we recognise and trust, to deliver real change. At the end of the day, the hope is that our collective purchasing power will incentivise companies to meet these higher standards and help bring us back to a sustainable economy.


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