Unilever Will Put Carbon Footprint Labels on All Its Products

Soon we might count our carbon like our calories.

Picking tea for Unilever in Kenya.
Picking tea for Unilever in Kenya.

 Kelly Rossiter

As noted earlier, I have committed to trying a 1.5° lifestyle, which means limiting my annual carbon footprint to the equivalent of 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, the maximum average emissions per capita based on IPCC research. That works out to 6.85 kilograms per day.

If you count calories, you have it easy; the food producers have to put a label on their products telling you how many there are per serving. The producers have it easy too; there are lots of labs that can do straightforward chemical analyses of the food product in hand.

If you are counting kilos of carbon like I and a few others are trying to do, it is not so easy; there are no labels and you cannot just examine it in a lab. Instead, you have to follow the product back to the farm and to the factory, to where every ingredient is made, and then follow the path from there to the store shelf. It's daunting.

However, the food giant Unilever recently announced that it is going to do exactly that. According to the company press release:

We believe that transparency about carbon footprint will be an accelerator in the global race to zero emissions, and it is our ambition to communicate the carbon footprint of every product we sell. To do this, we will set up a system for our suppliers to declare, on each invoice, the carbon footprint of the goods and services provided; and we will create partnerships with other businesses and organisations to standardise data collection, sharing and communication.

It's not the first time it's been tried, either; Jim Giles of GreenBiz reminds us that this is no easy task.

The first thing to say is that there’s precedent here — and it’s not encouraging. Around a decade ago, Tesco, a leading U.K. supermarket, attempted something similar only for the move to fizzle as the enormous complexity of collecting so much data became clear.
Unilever tea in Kenya is hydro powered since 1928
Unilever tea in Kenya is low-carbon hydro powered since 1928. Kelly Rossiter

But like Giles, I believe that this time it's different. For one thing, Unilever controls its supply chain much more tightly than a retailer like Tesco would. It can demand the data. As Alexis Bateman of MIT tells Giles: "They have a little more leverage and closer relationship with suppliers." Giles continues:

Unilever’s data-collection requirements effectively force every supplier to participate. And not just existing suppliers: Companies hoping to sell to Unilever will need to be competitive on emissions to do so.

For another thing, the world has changed in 10 years. A decade ago if you asked anyone what embodied carbon was, they would look at you funny. Now it seems that everyone is talking about it, if not in the general public yet, but among industry. Unilever is not alone in worrying about this.

There is also no standard label or process or review, but Marc Engel, Unilever’s global head of supply chain, tells Bloomberg that this will change.

Currently, there are no standards or third-party verification available, which means that consumers will have to take the company’s word for it. But Engel says he hopes Unilever’s competitors will follow suit, and that soon there will be an independent standard for carbon labeling just as there is for nutritional labels on foodstuffs.
“It’s a very big commitment,” he says. “But we are clearly seeing that consumers want to know how the products they buy contribute to their own carbon footprint.”

It is a big commitment for Unilever, but I suspect that more and more people are going to be making commitments to reduce their personal footprints. It will certainly be appreciated by me and the other six people trying to live a 1.5° lifestyle; perhaps it will help the 1.5° lifestyle market grow a bit.