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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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