Carbon Labelling: The Ins, Outs & Shake-It-All-Abouts.
Carrying out a lifecycle assessment to understand a product carbon footprint is no easy task… (though it’s possible!), but understanding what it is, why it matters, and how you and your business can make choices to reduce your product carbon footprint can have a lasting impact on people and our planet.
What is a product carbon footprint?
A product carbon footprint (PCF) is a means for measuring, managing and communicating greenhouse gas emissions related to goods and services. It’s an assessment from the extraction of raw materials through to distribution and disposal of a product so the carbon footprint can be measured at every stage.
Carbon footprints are usually measured by how many tons of carbon dioxide you or your business emit per year, taking into account other noxious greenhouse gases like methane, too. The average UK citizen’s carbon footprint is around 10 tonnes of Co2 per year, which is equivalent to Co2 emissions from the burning of over 11,000 pounds of coal, the charging of over 1.2 million smartphones, or the consumption of over 1,000 gallons of gasoline.
It’s no secret that greenhouse gases are inherently dangerous, and we should be doing whatever we can to limit the amount we release into the environment. When you need to buy a new product, it’s always best practice to buy one with a low carbon footprint or buying from businesses that are transparent about their carbon footprint.
One way of ensuring the products you buy have a low carbon footprint is to choose products with the Carbon Trust’s footprint label. The Carbon Trust’s footprint labelling system has been helping brands communicate their efforts in counting and reducing their carbon footprint since 2007. But how effective is it? We wanted to find out…
Carbon Trust’s footprint labelling system – our investigation
To better understand how consumers view and use carbon footprint labelling, we turned to our trusted panel of 500 families*. We regularly work with them to provide consumer insight as well as to ratify the work we do with clients. For this project, we put together a survey to see what they thought about the Carbon Trust’s Carbon Footprint label 15 years after its inception.
Far from an everyday symbol
Consumers are keen to purchase from brands who are engaging with their carbon footprint, but most don’t yet recognise or understand the Carbon Trust Footprint label. In our survey, 81% of our respondents said they would be more likely to purchase a product baring the Carbon Trust Footprint label. Yet, 64% of respondents did not recognise the label itself.
There is a total of eight different labels the Carbon Trust provide to certified brands ranging from ‘Co2 Measured’ through to ‘Carbon Neutral’ and a myriad of other claims in between. As all labels bare the Footprint sign, there is little to distinguish one over another. Over half of respondents to our survey did not understand the difference between the eight labels. The number of labels and their likeness make it difficult for consumers to understand the carbon impact of their purchase without additional research.
Hard to differentiate
Even when given two products with Carbon Trust Footprint labels that dig a little deeper into the carbon comparison, most respondents could not clearly identify if either product had a large or small carbon footprint. For example, consumers had no way to gauge if 600g of Co2 was a good result, even if another brand’s product emitted 800g.
The Carbon Trust’s 2020 report shows a continued support from consumers for brands to lower their carbon footprint and the positive effects this would have on brand perception. Our survey supported this with 98% of respondents wanting big brands to be held accountable for their carbon footprint. But our research made clear there must be greater outreach to ensure the Carbon Trust are a recognised organisation and greater clarity provided around the Carbon Footprint label in order to connect what consumers want and what they get.
Thankfully, since we conducted our research, the Carbon Trust have redesigned their label (April 2022). The label is now green and contains an additional box of written information to further explain each claim. We’ve reached out to the Carbon Trust to ask why these changes might be better for consumers. They did not provide comment on this question, but we do look forward to the research on the new label that will take place in 2023.
How should your business communicate its carbon impact?
The UK has become the first major economy to pass net zero emissions law. This new target will require the UK to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. It’s imperative businesses make systemic changes to lower their global carbon footprint. Once they understand their carbon footprint and have done a product lifecycle assessment, they will be able to give consumers the empowerment they deserve.
There are so many great ways to communicate your carbon footprint clearly and creatively. Not only is this good for the planet, but it’s also good business. Why? Well, as businesses work towards net-zero targets they will be measuring their carbon footprints at an organisational level. So, a product with carbon labelling may be more attractive for the owner of that business. For example, in the Creature & Co. purchase policy we state that there is preference to suppliers who pay the real living wage and suppliers who are measuring and reporting their resource use.
We think there is still some work to be done to make these complex topics even simpler to understand, so here are some ways to communicate carbon impact simply and effectively:
1. Understandable at a glance
A study conducted in Germany*, looked at the impact of product label designs on consumer understanding and purchasing behaviour. Reviewing tomato packaging, the results suggested that using color-coded traffic lights is a superior design tool against on pack comms showcasing claims around climate impact, reduction, or neutrality.
Using colour coded systems is an instantly and easily recognisable way of assessing products by the benchmark of their competitors – green being a good choice and red being a bad one. Why is this effective? Because consumers have short attention spans; they need to quickly digest information in a way that spans languages and learning styles.
2. Make it tangible
A carbon footprint is an intangible concept with very tangible impact. Does anyone know how much their personal carbon footprint should be to keep us below 1.5 degrees of global warming? No, probably not – that’s why it’s important to equate Co2 emissions to the every day.
It’s common knowledge that the average adults need around 2000 calories a day, give or take, to sustain themselves. If a consumer is given a barometer to work from, they can make a more informed decision. For example, equating a product’s production emissions to the equivalent emissions made from car journeys could help consumers understand carbon footprints much more. Institutions like the Carbon Trust and national Governments should be giving realistic, measurable, targets for companies and consumers alike, if we are hopeful of understanding and managing the impact of the carbon we produce.
3. Be Honest
There may be a natural reluctancy to advertise a carbon footprint that is higher than competitors but consumers value honesty, gravitate to, and pay more for, authentic brands.
The ability to hold up your hands and say, ‘we need to do better’ and taking consumers on that journey through compelling and engaging branded comms, is a failsafe way to have a positive impact both on the environment, consumer perception and the company bank balance.
Consumers are open to making purchasing decisions to help limit climate change but need that final push to feel empowered to make positive choices for our planet. When we asked what the future looks like for carbon labelling, The Carbon Trust told us that they “are seeing companies setting Net Zero targets and labelling being a powerful way to communicate these actions to consumers. This is supported by our research which found two-thirds of consumers think positively of a brand reducing the footprint of its products.”
The Carbon Trust also noted that to create further positive impact for the planet, we need “more products with footprint labels and access to better quality of data,” showcasing a need for brands to work together to combat climate change.
If you’d like to find out more about how to inform, inspire and empower your consumers and create a competitive advantage through brand purpose, our door is always open for a free, informative chat. We’d love to hear from you!
*10% of those surveyed responded to all questions.