Could Carbon Footprint Labels be the Key to Reduce Global Warming?

We know cycling to work is good for the planet and taking transatlantic flights is not. We know that running our household energy on green power lightens our carbon footprint and that driving our cars deepens it. But what is more difficult to determine is what a good personal footprint actually looks like. While the world commits to targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement, and businesses work to meet the environmental commitments set out by initiatives such as Clean Future and Future Foods, there is no universally agreed benchmark for individuals.

As the public is starting to become much more conscious of where its products come from, and the associated impact on the planet in their production, carbon labelling offers a transparent way of finding out what levels of CO2 emissions are associated with what we buy. This not only raises awareness as a society but also allows companies to become more sustainable and gain consumer trust. There are some challenges to overcome, however, as carbon labelling is not yet implemented everywhere.

With about a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions coming from the food industry, according to the United Nations, carbon footprint labels serve as a quick way for consumers to evaluate the climate impact of a product. Measured as a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) value, it shows the environmental cost from farm to fork, taking into account fertiliser use, energy needs, transport, processing, refrigeration and packaging.

But what exactly is included in a personal carbon footprint? According to the Carbon Trust, “a carbon footprint measures the total greenhouse gas emissions caused directly and indirectly by a person, organisation, event or product”. For an individual, that means the choices we make every day about what to eat, how we travel, how we heat and power our homes and the products we buy. They all contribute to our personal footprint. It quickly adds up (see personal story below). But luckily small savings add up too. From products to packaging to production, every reduction ultimately translates into carbon savings.

Educating the Consumer

The very first carbon label in the world called the Carbon Reduction Label was first introduced by the Carbon Trust in 2006 in the UK. The implementation of low-carbon product certification was pioneered to reduce the impact of carbon emissions on the production and service sectors. Products that have since taken on carbon labels include Walkers crisps, Kingsmill bread, British Sugar, Cemex cement, Marshalls paving, and Quaker Oats. Tesco was a leading company taking this system on since 2007, labelling their washing detergent, light bulbs, fruit, milk, and toilet paper. The scheme increased in popularity beyond the UK, in countries such as the United States, Canada, Switzerland, France, and Japan. Now, 43 countries use the carbon labelling scheme.

It has even extended to Asia, with Japan having begun a carbon footprint labelling scheme where the labels appeared on food and drink items from 2009, detailing each product’s carbon footprint under a government-approved calculation and labelling system.

Eco labels have been trialled in the UK, while some brands are using them voluntarily. Could they help cut carbon emissions? They have become a regular sight in supermarkets. Those meticulous shoppers who can be seen stooped over a packet, scouring the label for information that might persuade them to put it back on the shelf. Palm oil, perhaps. Sodium. Fat. Sugar. You may be one of those people yourself. If you are, you’ll soon have even more data to digest. A trial of eco labels for food and drink products has begun in UK supermarkets, ahead of a planned rollout across Europe from 2022.

Under the system, products including meat and vegetables are graded on carbon emissions, biodiversity impact and water usage from farm to supermarket. Items are given a rating of A* to G, as well as a red, amber or green colour to denote whether they have a large, medium or small ecological footprint. Scores are based on the individual merit of a product, rather than a generic rating for a food type.

The system is being overseen by Foundation Earth, a non-profit that has got brands including Costa Coffee, M&S and the food delivery company Abel & Cole onboard. “The launch of Foundation Earth is a very significant moment for the European food industry,” said Andy Zynga, chief executive of EIT Food, the European Commission’s food innovation programme. “It will bring about a credible and clear front-of-pack environmental labelling system on food products right across the continent.”

A separate trial of eco labels, led by the University of Oxford, is underway at a dozen cafeterias in the UK. Meanwhile, some brands are going it alone, launching their own labels to communicate their eco credentials with customers. Oatly is one of them. Avallen Spirits, which makes calvados, is another. “We can’t wait around for government legislation” said Avallen co-founder Tim Etherington-Judge, a former Greenpeace campaigner. “Some brands need to lead on this.”

Industry Giant Unilever introduced Carbon Footprint Labels

One of the world’s biggest food and consumer goods companies was set to introduce carbon footprint labels on its products for the first time by the end of 2021 – marking a key moment in the shift to badge products with their cost to the planet. Unilever, which has 75,000 products including Magnum ice-cream, Pot Noodle, Marmite and Hellmann’s mayonnaise, said that the carbon footprint of 30,000 of these products would be measured within six months, with carbon footprint labels on a select range by the end of 2021.

The labels will be piloted on up to two dozen products in Europe or North America and could adorn packaging in UK supermarkets by the end of 2022. Unilever said it plans to badge its entire product range over the next two to five years and also floated the idea of supermarkets creating “carbon-neutral or carbon-friendly” aisles, just like they have ”vegetarian aisles”, to help consumers make greener choices.

It is the first move by a global player to introduce carbon footprint labelling and could shake up supply chains in the food and drinks industry, causing other companies to fall in line or accelerate their plans. It comes as Boris Johnson’s food tsar, Henry Dimbleby, recommended a move towards consistent labelling that shows the environmental impact of products. The National Food Strategy said the Food Standards Agency should work with government and industry bodies to “develop a harmonised and consistent food-labelling system”.

It said: “Creating a simple and consistent method of labelling would ensure that all shops and manufacturers give us the same kind of information about our food. Having to record information about the environmental impact of food production could also influence the way that manufacturers make their products.”

Marc Engel, Unilever’s global head of supply chain, said: “We are halfway to ‘knowing’ what the carbon footprint of our product range is and we think now is the moment to begin ‘showing’. Our market research shows that younger consumers especially are very impacted by climate change and are keen to use their buying behaviour to send a message. We intend to roll out carbon labels on our entire product range over the next two to five years and believe it will transform not only the actions of consumers, but of the thousands of businesses in our supply chain as well.”

Unilever’s move was welcomed by the government as well as early adopters. A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: “We support Unilever’s ambitions to include carbon labelling on its products to help consumers in the fight against climate change.” A business of that size could really drive things forward and make a big difference, especially if they quickly roll out the labelling across their whole product portfolio.

Taiwan Joins Movement

All major agricultural products in Taiwan, including rice, chicken and pork, as well as fish and other aquaculture products, are one day to be sold with carbon footprint details on the label, Council of Agriculture Minister Chen Chi-chung said. He went on to say that consumers are increasingly conscious of the carbon footprint of the food products that they buy, but few products in Taiwan include such details on the packaging.

“Labels are not yet required to include such information, but someday it will be needed if we want to have a society with net-zero emissions,” he said. “There are already formulas to follow, such as how much carbon dioxide is emitted per kilogram of meat produced and how much is emitted during transportation.” Having labels that show consumers the carbon footprint of foods would help them better understand that imported foods have a hidden cost that locally produced foods do not have, he said.




Carbon labels can be effective in changing corporate as well as consumer behaviour, as corporations adjust their carbon footprint with the dual goals of increased efficiency and improved reputation.

Even if other brands follow Avallen’s and Unilever’s lead — or are legislated to do so — are eco labels likely to influence people’s behaviour? A 2015 study offers reasons for optimism. It found that nutritional labels increased the proportion of people selecting healthier products by 18 per cent. Meanwhile, a systematic review of 60 other studies concluded that nutritional labelling increased vegetable intake by 13.5 per cent.

Even if consumers aren’t all rushing to steer away from the highest emitters, the fact that some are could be a major spur for change. Another positive outcome of carbon labelling could be its potential to normalise sustainability and put it at the forefront of people’s minds. When we look at tobacco labelling, I don’t think any one warning label did a whole lot, but together the whole set helped de-normalise cigarette smoking.

While international and national government efforts at curbing climate change have had limited success in the past year, carbon labelling can be done by the private sector—absent any government action. It also can support development of government measures, such as border allowances and carbon taxes. Carbon labels can lead companies to reduce carbon emissions even if consumer responses to the labels are not strong; and as a result, carbon labels should be designed to affect not only retail consumer behaviour but also the behaviour of corporate managers. That means including both the simple, direct information that consumers are likely to respond to and the quantification of emissions that companies are likely to respond to.