British supermarket chain to “carbon label” all products

produce.jpgNow this is intriguing. At the same time that Sam’s Club is putting carbon on the shelf for the first time in the U.S., Tesco, the largest supermarket chain in Britain, has announced that it will begin labeling all 70,000 products on its shelves with the amount of carbon generated from the production, transport, and consumption of those items.

I’ve been fascinated with exactly this idea for a long time (ever since I read Omnivore’s Dilemma), but I never dreamt that a retailer would actually pursue it. Now I only wish I had mentioned the idea on this blog last year so that I could take credit for my prescience now.

Environmentalists have mooted the idea of “carbon labelling” but companies have struggled because of the complexity of measuring the carbon required to produce each item.

The “carbon footprint” of a product includes the energy required for its manufacture, packaging and transport to the supermarket shelves.

There are no well-established methods for collecting such information, and some of the decisions over what emissions to include are likely to be controversial.

Tesco will invest £5m inacademic research on these methods, working with theEnvironmental Change Institute at Oxford University.

Sir Terry said he could not say when the labels would be ready but he hoped other retailers would label their goods so that a “carbon calorie-counting” system would become an accepted part of food packaging, in a similar way to nutritional information.

He said: “The idea is that you can compare the carbon footprint of a product as you would compare nutrition or price.”

The Financial Times notes that Tesco’s initiative “stop[s] short” of rival chain Marks and Spencer’s promise to become carbon neutral. On the contrary, I think Tesco’s initiative goes far beyond what Marks and Spencer is doing, in terms of actual impact. As we’ve noted in regards to Wal-Mart, the carbon footprint of the supply chain is vastly larger than the footprint of any individual retailer. Giving consumers the option of making purchase decisions based on carbon content represents a huge and potentially landmark innovation.

Or maybe it will be a flop. Will consumers even take notice of the carbon labels? Will they be able to put the information in any sort of meaningful context? What does it mean if a bunch of grapes has a carbon content of 10 lbs and a loaf of bread has a carbon content of 20 lbs? Should carbon per calorie be the relevant measure? It will be fascinating to see how consumers respond.

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  1. John - January 24, 2007

    As a shopper at Tesco’s I think this is a very good idea and that it could spread to many other products.
    What intrigues me is that they said they would note on the product the “production, transport and consumption” of the item. When they say production, will they estimate the methane emissions from the animal during its lifetime? What do they mean by consumption? Are they going to tell us what methane emissions result from us using or consuming the product? Apart from the negative impact this would have on air freshener sales, it does make sense noting on products what emissions they will generate when they are being used.

  2. Muffin - January 24, 2007

    How about carbon/serving? But a serving of steak vs. a serving of grapes is not really a great comparison.
    Awesome idea though!
    Is Walmart doing this too?

  3. Pat - January 24, 2007

    I think this is a great idea. Shoppers will be able to choose local products and local farmers will be able to survive.

  4. Lynn - January 24, 2007

    Great idea! I wish all companies could follow their example and do this.

  5. Anonymous - January 24, 2007

    I agree that this is groundbreaking. What gets reported gets evaluated and will at some point factor into the decision making process. And at the very least, it portrays a much more wholistic view of the costs of various products, which brings the topic of carbon emissions out of the dark and into the mainstream. I’d guess that American chains would be too scared to divulge this information, given the extent to which we ship everything across country…

  6. Robert L. Stebbins - January 24, 2007

    Take beer for example. Most of the carbon costs are in its distribution, which can be world-wide. Forget the brands on TV, buy the local ones.

  7. Stephanie - January 25, 2007

    Great idea!! Their are going to be a lot of “what ifs” and “what about the carbon from this” and so on, but it’s a start. Everything needs to start somewhere and along the way suggestions and revisions will be made.
    Some people will take note of the carbon warning more than others, but at least that information is put out there!!

  8. Brian - January 27, 2007

    This idea is good in theory, but very burdensome in practice. I recently attended a conference of plastic film manufacturers with regards to carbon labeling. Most of these are small, family-owned companies with very thin margins. Wal-mart’s new carbon-labeling initiative means that many will have to stop selling their products to Wal-mart vendors due to their inability to devote any more resources to the labeling effort. Their choice is to either produce at a loss or lose most of their market share. What is the payoff to society? Does it outweigh the right to work for hundreds of thousands of small-business employees?

  9. Adam Stein - January 27, 2007

    Brian —
    I’m very interested to hear more about this issue. In fact, this is the first I’ve heard about any carbon labeling effort underway at Wal-Mart. But I must say that, until I find out more, the carbon labeling vs. small business argument sounds like a bit of a red herring. If even the act of measuring our carbon emissions is too much for the economy to bear, how are we going to undertake the hard work of actually reducing those emissions?

  10. Rob D - January 31, 2007

    Adam – Along the grocery lines I blogged a suggestion regarding TerraPass and NYC mass transit. Might be something to explore.

  11. MNWalleye - February 4, 2007

    It’s comical in that people are hung on the smallest things like carbon labeling on food and things like shuting off your engine when ideling. Really big things like Jet travel seems downplayed. According to a British study;
    “At cruising altitudes high in the stratosphere, these gasses cause 30-times more atmospheric warming than when released near the ground—contributing as much to global warming as all car emissions worldwide! This major pollutant from jet engines also erodes Earth’s tattered ozone shielding,exposing not only plants and animals on the ground to increased solar radiation—but everyone onboard high-flying jets, as well.”
    So maybe that SUV is not really the big culprit in overall global warming as much as that big Jet?
    Thomas Friedman in Moscow, did you hear that? Jet Travel is incredibly “harmful” to the enviroment!”
    MNWalleye, 6.45 ton footprint

  12. Adam Stein - February 5, 2007

    Emissions at altitude do cause more global warming than emissions at ground level, but certainly not 30 times more. The commonly used multiplier is somewhere around 2.
    Airline emissions are somewhere around 10% of emissions from ground transportation. This is certainly significant, but not worse than cars or trucks.
    Incidentally, when we talk about carbon labeling of food, we are talking about emissions from cars, trucks, and planes. Stuff needs to be transported to the store. It’s great to ride your bicycle to the supermarket, but the big picture also matters.

  13. Anonymous - February 6, 2007

    Yep the big picture is important when you consider people need food to survive but they don’t need to travel by jet to survive. I suspect the majority of air travel could be eliminated as unnessary with our current techology. Maybe the federal government could get involved, just like Europe is finally addressing. One thing to consider and think about, the amount of energy burned by the hour by jet travel is enormous compaired to your car but people get a false sense of this because their only in the air a few hours where traveling the same distance by car would take them days.
    MNWalleye still hovering at 6.45 but that could easily change with the global freezing through out the
    country. more fun reading;

  14. rhiannon - February 27, 2007

    Ok yes, this is a very interesting idea in terms of environmental consequences but what about the people in places such as Africa that have been made by us and the big buisnesses in the western world to become dependent on the produce that we buy. In kenya for example they are told to transform there usual method of farming into growing crops like french bean which the majority of the domestic population dont eat anyway so that they have a stable income coming in. What will happen to these people when we no longer want our french beans all the way from kenya – they have transformed there land but it will no longer be stable enough to grow there original crops, wont threr economy collapse?. Will tesco lend a friendly helping hand to them…hmmm I doubt it- Againg we the powerful in terms of money are dictating how the poorer live. Through the economic crash in africa, shall not they be the ones left worse…as always! Its not really a very alternative and remeber this is TESCOS, they know that people are becoming more eco-conscious (which is briliant) but they dont really care about people or the environment they’re money making schemers!!!

  15. Anon - April 10, 2007

    This is all very wonderful, I think, but when are we consumers going to be given the choice of purchasing non-genetic modified foods? This is of great concern to me and my family, we would like to see all foods carry genetic modified labels.

  16. Will - January 27, 2009

    I would like to know what tool is used to calculate the carbon footprint for a particular product.

  17. Turnip - July 3, 2009

    [Holy wow, you’re dumb.]