Not too long ago, environmentalists were excited about the roll out of carbon labeling in grocery stores in the UK. That roll out was being spearheaded as part of supermarket chain Tesco's larger sustainability initiatives.
But now the scheme may be in trouble.
Carbon Labeling Under Review
Talking to Rebecca Fay of the Carbon Neutral Company the other day, she alerted us to the fact that Tesco has placed the labeling program under review. It seems consumers find it too consuming, and somewhat meaningless, to be asked to compare the carbon footprint of a carton of orange juice to that of a can of beer or a bunch of bananas. Just what are they supposed to do with that information anyway?
Corporations Passing the Buck?
It's not entirely surprising. Leo Hickman over at The Guardian was skeptical when carbon labels first started appearing, asking whether knowing the footprint of your toilet paper would really cause you to use less. And, more importantly, he argued that it was just an excuse for companies to pass the buck on to the consumer. As Lloyd noted in his now infamous post on why recycling is bullshit, corporations like nothing more than to pass the buck for their environmental impact onto the consumer, asking them to make "responsible choices" instead of taking serious action to improve their operations.
Crucially, however, it's clear that it is carbon labeling that is under review, not the idea of carbon footprinting itself. James Murray over at Business Green has an excellent analysis of what Tesco's carbon labeling decision means, and what the company should do next:
So, what next? It is informative that as Tesco backs away from carbon footprint labelling, simpler environmental labels such as the Vestas-backed Windmade scheme for products made using wind energy or the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label for sustainable seafood are gathering momentum. It is also important to note that labelling schemes such as the MSC and Fairtrade labels required years of educational efforts and marketing investment before they truly broke through into the retailing mainstream.
The carbon footprinting sector will continue to expand with or without Tesco's direct involvement. Businesses know they can't manage what they don't measure, and as such more and more firms will continue to invest in analysing and understanding their various carbon footprints. However, it is to be hoped Tesco is serious when it says it is reviewing its options, and will now find a new and more effective way to make carbon and other environmental data available to its customers.
The Consumer Mindset is a Simple One
As someone who works in good-for-the-world branding and marketing, I often have to remind myself that consumers (myself included) are profoundly stupid. That's not to say that humans (myself included) are dumb—but rather that we make decisions in the grocery store at lightning speed based on very limited information. We simply don't have the time or the mental energy to consider the future of the planet when we have to decide which brand of beans to eat for our dinner. But that doesn't mean we don't care. We just care differently when we are busy shopping.
That may be a sad reflection on the state of humanity, but it is also an observable fact. We'd be better off accepting it and designing our labels (and our supposedly sustainable business operations) accordingly, rather than wishing it wasn't so. And, most importantly, we need to look for solutions primarily at the ballot box and in our communities, not on the grocery store shelf.