Chips aren’t for (carbon) free: carbon labeling hits the shelves in the UK

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How do you measure the carbon footprint of a bag of crisps? A bag of what? Walkers crisps. Or in American English, Lay’s Chips.

I’m writing this from the UK where, just to make things very confusing, a bag of chips is known as a bag of crisps, and where Frito Lay sells its “crisps” under the brand name Walkers. There’s one other major difference that has interested me — and it isn’t that the salt and vinegar flavor comes in green bags over here.

Walkers have been working with a government-funded organization called The Carbon Trust to calculate the carbon emissions caused by one bag of chips. It is the first company to begin carbon-labeling as part of a pilot scheme to label products with their environmental impact.

It isn’t clear just how long or costly this process has been, but Walkers (and its parent company PepsiCo) must have learned some interesting things along the way. When the company announced the new label earlier this month, it announced at the same time that it would now be sourcing all of its potatoes from the UK in the hope of reducing these emissions.

In the UK the standard size for a bag of chips is 34.5 grams (1.2 oz). Amazingly, the calculations made by The Carbon Trust suggest that this one bag of chips is responsible for over twice its weight in emissions — 75 grams per bag.

You can read more about the process on Walkers’ carbon footprint web site. Here’s a breakdown of carbon emissions from various stages in the production process of a bag of chips:

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  • Raw materials (44%): potatoes, sunflower oil and seasoning
  • Manufacture (30%): producing chips from potatoes
  • Packaging (15%): chip packets and boxes for distribution
  • Distribution (9%): transportation to retail outlets
  • Consumer packaging disposal (2%)

It appears that Walkers and The Carbon Trust have made a pretty thorough assessment of the supply chain of a pack of chips. Two other UK companies are also taking part in the pilot with the Carbon Trust; Boots plc is assessing the carbon impact of its Botanics and Ingredients hair shampoos and the smoothie company Innocent is examining the carbon footprint of its entire business.

This seems to me to be a great initiative, although the workload involved probably means that it will be a while before we see the whole supermarket labeled with carbon footprints. Walkers has managed to do this in the UK. Can we expect its sister company Frito Lay to do the same in the US?

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pete

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  1. Steve Andrews - August 1, 2007

    Nice article Pete. Just thought I should clarify the position on the very important subject of the right colour for salt and vinegar crisps. Walkers have always been out of step in using green bags. All other brands use blue, as you’d expect! I don’t know how they get away with it. But then again, I don’t know why you guys over there get away with calling crisps, ‘chips’. It’s a crazy mixed up World.

  2. Anon - August 1, 2007

    What a great article. Well done PepsiCo, Boots and Innocent! It is good to see large companies using environmental accounting. One hopes they will do something about either reducing or offsetting the emissions.

    As a side note this chip/crisp debate is very confusing, especially for a New Zealander who has lived in both the UK and now the US. In New Zealand we say potato chips (UK – crisps/ US – chips) and hot chips (UK – chips/US – fries).

    Salt and Vinegar Pototo Chips also come in a green bag in New Zealand!

  3. Tim E - August 1, 2007

    Does 75 grams per bag refer to carbon or carbon dioxide equivalent emissions? The packaging suggests it is CO2 but the Walkers website refers only to “carbon emissions”.

  4. Pete - August 1, 2007

    Good question. And it’s not obviously clear from the Carbon Trust information. I’m fairly confident it’s CO2 equivalent. I’ll ask the Carbon Trust to clarify, but the methodology information here (pdf) suggests the label is a CO2 equivalent.
    Although confusing to those that understand about equivalents, my guess is that this is a much simpler way of labeling.

  5. Ben - August 1, 2007

    Nice article. I see the nutrition facts on packages as advice for what you should buy to keep you healthy. Now you can be advised to buy products that are more healthy for the environment.
    One more step in becoming and supporting sustainable accountability.

  6. Emma - August 3, 2007

    In the US, Climate Counts, a nonprofit project of Stonyfield Farms, is measuring climate change impacts and efforts on a company level. They’ve scored several dozen major companies from across industries (e.g. Starbucks-46, Proctor & Gamble-53, Nike-73, Amazon-0) based on the organizations’ actions to reduce their emissions, focusing on transparency of these efforts. More companies will be added as the project expands; hopefully they’ll eventually do specific products too.

  7. Tim E - August 13, 2007

    Pete,
    Were you able to confirm the units on the Walker’s packaging? Is it 75g CO2e or 75g C? Thanks.

  8. Amit - August 31, 2007

    Nice article Pete. Along with Carbon footprint label/number, is there an attempt to educate the public regarding the significance of the numbers, and what is considered an acceptable range? Simply seeing 75g on the bag doesn’t really tell me its significance (no/low/medium/high impact). Could you maybe post a follow-up article on that please? Or maybe point to a web-site that explains it.

  9. Alex Tanner - February 8, 2008

    The trouble is even Big Green (opposite of Big Oil)
    [Ed. — Thanks! We never would have figured out what your clever reference to Big Green meant if you hadn’t explained it.]
    doesn’t seem to know that carbon is an atom and carbon dioxide is a molecule…
    [Ed. — you’re right! We thought carbon was a color and carbon dioxide was a breath freshener. Man, do we feel goofy.]
    which makes their “science” a little dubious.
    [Ed. — struggling to keep up here. Science is created by scientists, not environmentalists. Over here at Big Green, we’re easily confused, so we just do what the guys in the lab coats tell us. I just checked with them, and it turns out they were aware that carbon dioxide is a molecule. Glad someone’s paying attention!]
    CO2 is not at dangerous or unprecedented levels in the environment yet. Oxides of nitrogen and sulphur particulates have proven direct effects on health (i.e. lung cancer, asthma, etc). I would say currently these substances are pollutants but CO2 at its current level is not. In fact, we can survive CO2 levels of up to 1% easily. The current level is just below 0.04%.
    [Ed. — oh, hang on. It appears that you might be the one confused. You seem to be somewhat preposterously confusing CO2 toxicity in humans with the effect that CO2 has on our climate system. Hey, simple mistake! Oh, and CO2 levels actually are unprecedented. That’s not even slightly controversial.]
    Blah blah I live in my own reality nonsense nonsense…