Green Product Labeling: Is It Valid & Does It Matter?

You might think The Footprint Chronicles trace someone's journey through foreign lands or a hike in the forest. But these Chronicles refer to the ecological footprints of ten items made by outdoor clothing manufacturer Patagonia.

As TreeHugger has reported, Patagonia is not alone in trying to convey to customers the environmental impact of its products. Timberland, PepsiCo and others are getting in the game. Regardless of their motives, the question is whether these calculations -- assuming they are scientifically valid -- actually influence consumer behavior and help to reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing consumer goods.Recently, Stephen Doig, Vice President of the Energy and Resources Team at Rocky Mountain Institute, spoke to us about what this rush to label the environmental impact of products might mean for manufacturers and consumers. Prior to joining RMI, Doig spent ten years as a consultant with McKinsey & Co., working with a wide range of industries.

The Challenges
"If one number looked at a bunch of different parameters, [labeling] could be a good idea if it drives behavior," he said. However, "I wouldn't make any decision until I knew what the number meant."

And therein lies the problem, according to Doig. Some companies, like Patagonia, convey the information quite clearly, in this case by posting the information on its website and specifying each parameter -- 47 pounds of CO2 emissions in the case of its Wool 2 Crew, for example, along with 9 ounces of waste.

But sometimes the meaning is not as clear. Timberland, for one, has started including a single number inside its shoes that rates how "green" the products are. Granted, the number is explained on a card inside each shoebox that provides a zero-to-ten carbon rating, with a ten meaning that roughly 100 kg of carbon was emitted in the manufacturing process for that shoe. But a quick glance at the number inside the shoe, without reading the back-up information, could be confusing.

"I don't know what 'green' means," Doig said. And, he added, there is the problem of weighing one environmental parameter against another. "Which is more important? That it be made within 500 miles of my house? That it have the lowest carbon content? First you have to decide, what is your goal?" he said. "Is it cleaner water, cleaner air, less carbon, wetland restoration? It's those weighting factors that start to bother me."

Standardization
One way to get around this issue, he suggested, would be to standardize the process, so that consumers know the numbers they see on various products mean roughly the same thing. "Make it transparent, open source, figure out how we can get it sort of apple to apple," he said. Britain, in fact, is doing this already with respect to greenhouse gas emission measurements and expects to have a standard in place by June, according to Business Week.

Aside from giving consumers a better chance of knowing what various numbers mean, standardization could serve as an impetus for companies to improve their processes. "I think the number would come down if you standardize," Doig said, using the analogy of the Food and Drug Administration's nutrition label as an example that has spurred food companies to reduce their use of trans fats.

Product Lifecycles
Doig also suggested looking at the environmental impacts associated with three points in a product's lifecycle -- manufacturing, distribution and use -- and evaluating a company based on its plan for reducing impact in each area. He imagined a three-piece pie chart with numbers inside each piece for parameters like CO2 emissions, recycled content and water use. Consumers could then evaluate changes over time, for example, a product's carbon emissions one year, two years and five years out.

"The absolute is important for identifying where you go to work on stuff -- the big opportunities," Doig said. "But the most important thing is the quality of the program to reduce the impact."

Even if some standard system is adopted in the United States, the question remains whether it will actually drive consumer behavior. And whether that, in turn, will spur companies to change their processes. Consumers seem to have responded positively to Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles: "This is the easily one of the most honest, transparent and gutsy steps a brand has taken to lighten its carbon footprint. Kudos," reads one posting on the company's blog.

Whether that happy customer will alter his purchasing decisions based on the information is an open question.

Image Credit::Patagonia's Footprint Chronicles