I am beginning to think that the best way to make money out of the green business revolution could be to invest in a factory making labels.
Hardly a week seems to pass without some new firm or standards body announcing plans for a green labelling scheme that they claim will change the behaviour of both producers and customers, help bolster environmental best practices and slash carbon emissions.
In the last few months alone we've had the Carbon Trust's plans for a new carbon reduction label - which takes on the impossibly daunting task of telling customers how much embodied carbon is emitted through a product's lifecycle - and commitments from Marks & Spencer and Tesco that they will label any products air freighted into the country.
These have joined a raft of well established organic and fair trade labels - which often include some information on a product's environmental sustainability - as well as the United States' Energy Star label for the most energy efficient electrical appliances, the EU's A to G energy efficiency ranking label, and the Energy Saving Trust's recommendation label - all of which are jostling for position on Europe's fridges, washing machines and TVs.
These high profile labels are just the tip of a green standards iceberg that, unlike real icebergs, is actually getting bigger. Like I say, the labelling business is booming.
Of course, almost all of these schemes are well-intentioned, admirable and likely to be having some positive net effect on the environment. But given the current glut of new eco-labels it is worth asking how effective they are likely to be, what needs to be done to increase their chances of success, and whether there is a risk they could prove counter productive.
The thinking behind green labels is admirable in its simplicity. By giving customers independently assessed information about the environmental credentials of a product you allow them to make more informed decisions about which products to choose.
Assuming that the environment is a top priority for customers they will then opt for the greenest products forcing rival producers to reduce the environmental footprint of their products or risk losing business. As such, standards improve across the board and the customer feels they are taking a proactive step in the battle against climate change.
The big question is does this model actually work? The answer is yes, but only if certain criteria are met.
The first thing you need for a successful labelling scheme is widespread, or ideally universal, support from manufacturers, retailers and resellers.
Back in the eighties every few months you'd see a consumer affairs show on TV that would highlight the risks posed by cuddly toys with metal spikes in them, kids' duvets that would catch light if they got within five feet of an electric bulb, or toy soldiers made from polonium.
These scandals led to the development of various safety kite marks which toy stores insisted products must have before they'd stock them. As a result manufacturers had to improve their designs or go out of business, kite marks became ubiquitous and toxic toys are now almost unheard of.
However, this simply could not have been achieved without genuine customer pressure resulting in every single retailer demanding that products met the safety standards. If just one or two retailers had told suppliers they were not bothered about safety then manufacturers would have continued to find a market for these dangerous products, which were invariably cheaper to manufacture than their kite marked approved alternatives and therefore attractive to irresponsible retailers.
There is a danger that with very few of the new generation of green labels enjoying universal support that the across the board adoption of best practices will take far longer than was the case with toy safety. For example, with very few retailers saying they will categorically not stock electrical appliances that are in the worst energy efficiency bands the pressure on manufacturers to change their designs, while growing, is no where near as acute as it could be.
Moreover, failure to establish universal labelling systems only creates customer confusion that undermines the labels' ability to influence customer decisions.
The admittedly embryonic embodied carbon label scheme from the Carbon Trust is a case in point. Under the scheme products will receive a label that lets customers know how many grams of CO2 were emitted during its entire lifecycle and also notifies them that the producer has committed to reducing that figure over a two year period.
Firms such as crisp producer Walkers and smoothie company Innocent have signed up, but with rival companies not yet using the label customers will be left unsure as how to interpret the information on the labels. They could just deem the commitment to reduce CO2 emissions as a good enough reason to buy a labelled product rather than one not signed up to the scheme. But they cannot be sure that the 190 grams of CO2 emitted for each 250ml carton of Innocent's mango and passionfruit drink, for example, is actually lower than the carbon footprint of a rival unlabelled product.
You could argue that company's producing competing products that have a smaller carbon footprint will suddenly have an incentive to join the scheme and prove they are greener, but equally companies with a large carbon footprint have a far bigger incentive to either avoid the label completely in the hope of perpetuating customer confusion or set up a rival labelling system that uses different metrics showing their product in a better light.
This is exactly what has happened with nutritional information labels where two rival systems have been developed in the UK and, regardless of producers' claims to the contrary, are undoubtedly confusing customers and making direct comparisons between products more difficult.
The second critical requirement for a successful labelling scheme is that it must be able to genuinely influence purchasing decisions. To do this there has to be either little or no difference in price between a product with the label and one without so that the label becomes the game breaker in any purchasing decision, or what the label guarantees has to be of enough value to the customer that they are willing to pay a premium.
It could be argued that neither of these scenarios yet exists for green labels.
As a rule of thumb greener products are likely to have a price premium, which means in many cases the customer has to be willing to pay for the label. There is no doubt that growing numbers of customers are willing to do this, but as this week's survey from the Energy Savings Trust suggested there also remain many who aren't.
Even where price doesn't come into the equation there has to be a question mark over labels' ability to change certain behaviours. Tesco and M&S are to label fruit and veg that is air freighted into the country for example, but labels telling customers the country of origin of a bunch of grapes or punnet of necatarines already give people a fair idea how far the food has travelled and demand for these items remains solid despite growing concerns over carbon emissions. Using labels to make the environmental impact of these products more explicit may shame some people into shopping differently, but many will continue to turn a blind eye to the climate change implications of their weekly trolley.
The risk with labels is that they could help companies assuage any guilt they have over the environmentally damaging products they sell, as they allow them to argue that customers have been given the information required to make responsible decisions and if they choose not to then the company is just responding to demand that the customer would simply take elsewhere.
This is valid reasoning, but to avoid this scenario developing green labels must form part of a wider strategy which ensures that not only are green products the same price or cheaper than alternative options but also that customers are educated to see the wider value in buying environmentally accredited goods and services.
Get these supplementary initiatives right and there is no reason that market forces should not take hold and standards rise as organisations that fail to adopt labels lose business.
However, while this is likely to happen over time the sheer number of vested interests and companies that would benefit commercially from avoiding or even wilfully undermining green labelling schemes mean that it will not happen quickly.
Ultimately, if we are to avoid a frustrating decade characterised by products covered in countless competing environmental labels then we will need either genuine industry-wide support for agreed standards or more legislation forcing firms to enter into green labelling schemes.
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