Do you care about a product’s carbon footprint?

Written by pete


I was very interested to read on NYT’s Green Inc. blog about consumer reactions to seeing carbon labels on products.

Over a year ago I wrote here about carbon labeling of Walker’s Crisps (PepsiCo’s UK brand of Lay’s) and wondered what kind of reaction there would be from shoppers.

Well here’s the answer from the man in charge of Walkers at the time:

> They didn’t necessarily understand the number, but what they respected was the fact that we were being transparent and committed to reduce and lead.

> It’s not something that drove sales particularly, but it helped with consumer perception.

Does this ring true? Would you buy one product over another because it displays its embodied carbon footprint?

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  1. matt

    I have often wondered about this in a large scale would the consumer understand it. People have a hard time understanding carbon offsetting and what even a carbon footprint is. People also have a hard time reading food labels putting the two of them together could make things even more difficult for the consumer

  2. TarGator

    I believe very much in the power of disclosure.
    Take the example of trans fat. For a long time trans fat was in junk food and the industry claimed there was no way to take it out effectively. Then the government requires the disclosure on trans fat on the nutritional info. Suddenly everything is trans fat free. It is not that every person understands how trans fat is bad or even reads every label, but no company wants to be publishing that their products are full of the stuff.
    With carbon it will be the same. People might not fully understand where the carbon comes from or how much carbon “should” be used in creating a bag of chips. But they know it is bad for the environment and can compare a bag that says 50 lbs. with on that says 75 lbs. and choose the 50 lbs. bag.

  3. Paul S.

    TarGator, I hope you meant 75g and not 75lbs, unless you were talking about a very big “product”.
    I agree with you tho’. Even if people don’t read the labels, the fact that it is there will change the manufacturers attitudes about how much energy they use to produce their product.
    I do read the labels and would certainly pick a product with a lower carbon footprint.

  4. Amanda Schuneman

    I think the problem is that there is no standard for how companies measure their Carbon Footprints; pardon the cliche.
    For example, one company’s product may be labeled, 75G, (as shown in the photo attached to the original blog post.) But another company’s product with a smaller Carbon Footprint might have a higher numerical value, as each company has a different measurement process. Just as the real estate building is making LEED certifications a standard process, so too does the FDA (and other NGO’s).

  5. Rob

    I think posting the number is silly as it essentially forces the consumer to normalize it against what the product is. Is this a good number for a bag of chips? A bad number? How big is the bag?
    A better way to take this is the labeling route. I buy “Free Trade” coffee and “Energy Star” appliances. Perhaps we need a “Low Carbon” to stamp onto products of the same vein. That would certainly be more effective.

  6. Agnes K

    I have to agree with Rob on this one. While I am very diligent about reading labels for a number of reasons, I’ll wager that the average consumer is not. They will see what they want on the shelf and pick it up because it’s what they’re looking for, regardless of ingredients or nutritional content. However, with the recent trend toward healthier diets, I also expect that the average consumer will be more likely to go for the product labeled “Reduced Fat,” “Low Fat,” or “Trans Fat Free,” even though such labels can often be misleading about the true nutritional value of the product.
    Stamping a bag with a carbon footprint number would be almost impossible for the average person to figure out, but the lower numbers would surely start to win out even if they didn’t represent the most accurate picture of actual carbon emissions created in the process of producing and shipping the product. Setting a national standard for companies to meet, or even offering incentives to companies who exceed those standards would make more sense, and stamping only those products with a “Low Carbon” label would certainly make more sense to consumers in that context, and convince more consumers to buy products that truly do produce less carbon just based on a glance at the label.

  7. Meghan R

    Something else to consider – would this type of labelling actually encourage the purchase of smaller, single-use type products?
    If so then it would be counter productive from a sustainability perspective. It’s similar to the logic of buying in bulk – the upfront cost can be very high, but the purchaser understands that per unit you are saving money, packaging, car trips, etc. By comparing the carbon footprint of a tiny bag of chips to a large bag of chips, for example, the carbon footprint may be misleading depending on how it is (a) calculated and (b) presented to the consumer.
    It seems all are agreed that the average individual does not currently possess the knowledge to understand carbon footprint labels. This to me is the fundamental problem. Instead of spending time and resources on creating a product label that may or may not be understood, why not put those resources towards climate change/sustainability education and outreach. We need to elevate individuals’ understanding of the impact of their daily lifestyle decisions at a basic level first.

  8. Dorothy

    The carbon footprint figure should be calculated on a per unit basis, not per bag etc.
    Humans do have a brain and are capable of learning if they choose, as you said.

  9. Rob

    I honestly don’t think it’s an issue of not having a brain, it’s just a matter of time and hours in the day. A great deal of people are well-intentioned when it comes to the environment, but are not going to spend the time to do the math. They’re shopping with their kids in a shopping cart, on their phones, grabbing things off the shelf, and, if presented with some obvious label like “Organic” or “Free Trade” will often make a purchase in line with good intentions.
    But let’s take an example. There a lot of talk on “Locally Grown” being lower in carbon (though TerraPass has done much to prove that it’s not that big a deal compared to other things). If I see a “Local” label on some veggies, no brainer! I’ll snag it. It could have come from 2 miles away or 150 miles away, but it’s not 1000 miles away. I just have to think “Local” vs. “Non-local.” I don’t have to think “is 200 vs. 1000 miles really that different? They’re both probably on the plane anyway, so probably not, and the 1000 looks fresher…” etc.
    I’m just a big believer it making it easy for people with good intentions and not very much time to do the right thing.

  10. Ram

    I welcome this change if implemented. Like any other change, it will take time (and may be some education) for people to fully accept and understand it. But, in long term, it seems promising to me.

  11. Janet Haug

    I care a lot about the carbon footprint of my products. I think it is fantastic! I think many companies will be amazed when they do the research it takes to find out what their impact is. The more you know the better decision you can make about purchasing a product.
    I’ve learned there are a lot of products I used to use daily that I really can do without!

  12. Jackie

    I stopped eating beef, for a number of reason but not least the higher carbon footprint. Still not vegetarian because my body doesn’t do well with beans and grains.
    So I would definitely buy the lesser carbon footprint if given the info – tho I also don’t eat chips! Information is good, and better when it is clear and easy to understand.

  13. Tom Jefferson

    Just one more bit of small print on a product I may need or want. I look for quality of the product and ignore the rest.

  14. Beelzebub

    I have to say, most people are too stupid to make informed decisions. This is why Socialism is becoming a more popular choice amongst politicians. Because of rap music, fast food and Internet porn, our society is becoming dumber (more dumb?), therefore people need to have decisions made for them. Just let the government control the products so the people can mindlessly consume- and think they are helping the environment too!

  15. Rob

    Max Weber was writing that same thought almost 100 years ago, specifically that the general populous was too stupid, etc. Nothing has changed with regard to the depth of knowledge of the general population; if anything the common man has become, on average, much better informed over time. Rap music, etc., has nothing to do with it; that’s just a plain ridiculous statement.