Tesco's move to phase out carbon labelling might be understandable, but it is also disappointingly short-sighted
Do you pay attention to carbon footprint labels? When you see one does it resonate? Do you use it to decide whether or not to buy a product? Do you even know what one looks like?
Apparently, not enough of us are answering these questions in the affirmative. According to reports in the Grocer magazine, Tesco climate change director Helen Fielding has confirmed the supermarket giant is reviewing its commitment to roll out Carbon Trust-backed carbon footprint labels across its full product range, after concluding the labels were too costly to implement and had failed to have the desired impact with customers.
A spokeswoman for the company quickly clarified that no decision has yet been taken, insisting that while the company was looking at its options it remained fully committed to carbon footprinting.
"We are committed to carbon footprinting and effectively communicating this information to our customers to help them make greener choices," she said in a statement. "We know our customers care about product sustainability, but there is a real challenge to effectively explain this often complex message in a meaningful way, so we are currently reviewing a range of options."
Regardless of Tesco's final decision on the future of a footprinting initiative that has already seen carbon labels successfully attached to around 500 products, it will mark both an important turning point for a footprinting model that will ultimately prove critical to corporate efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and potentially an embarrassing U-turn for the UK's largest supermarket.
I recall being at an event back in 2008 on footprinting and corporate social responsibility where Tesco's corporate affairs director (and former Number 10 insider), David North, offered a remarkably impassioned defence of the company's commitment to footprint labels, even resorting at one point to quoting William Tyndale's damning indictment of elites who "keep the world still in darkness, to the intent they might sit in the consciences of the people".
The reason it sticks in the mind, beyond the fact that 15th century scholars are not quoted that often at sustainability summits, was that North's defence was so robust it actually all got a bit uncomfortable for the audience, as he clashed with a representative of a consumer lobby group who argued carbon labels were too complex and would confuse customers. Dismissing the complaint, North challenged his adversary to spell out precisely what it was on the labels that he regarded as confusing, implying that he was patronising consumers with the assumption they would not be able to comprehend carbon footprint labels.
It is easy to see why Tesco was so keen on carbon labels. The approach fits neatly with the company's philosophy of empowering consumers to make their own decisions. Tesco does its bit by providing the required carbon information and then it is up to the customer to make the greener choice. It is a neat, voluntary, market-based, essentially laissez faire approach to a problem that many green campaigners maintain will require stringent regulations to resolve.
But four years on, Tesco now appears ready to tacitly acknowledge both that there "is a real challenge to effectively explain this often complex message in a meaningful way", and that the effectiveness of carbon labels has been undermined by the absence of any requirement forcing other retailers to join in and adopt carbon labels.
The big question now is how does Tesco and other companies engage in carbon footprinting exercises in the future?
Most importantly it needs to be remembered that the challenge Tesco is facing appears to centre on the concept of carbon footprint labelling, not the practice of carbon footprinting itself.
The Carbon Trust's other main carbon management initiative, the Carbon Trust Standard – which can be carried by any company that reports on its overall carbon emissions and demonstrates that they are falling year-on-year – continues to go from strength to strength. Meanwhile, there are countless examples of how companies have calculated the carbon footprints of products and used the resulting information to identify steps that they can take to cut carbon emissions and save money.
There remains a compelling financial and environmental case for companies to measure their carbon emissions in as much detail as possible, providing them with the data they need to reduce their carbon intensity. Coincidentally, a major new report on green corporate spending due out tomorrow is expected to show that spending on "product stewardship" initiatives such as carbon footprinting and sustainable supply chain management will grow rapidly over the next few years. Interest in carbon footprinting services will inevitably expand as companies look to cut carbon, curb operating costs, and make supply chains more sustainable.
The challenge for Tesco and others centres more on what you should do once you have that carbon data. Should it be used to inform the purchasing and investment decisions of senior executives, or should it be pushed into the hands of customers so that they can make their own decisions on green goods and services?
In an ideal world, the answer has to be both. Carbon data should inform the strategic decisions a company makes, but in the interest of transparency and consumer rights it should also be made available to customers.
Coincidentally, news of Tesco's willingness to drop carbon labels came on the same day as a major new report from the UN suggested that environmental labelling should play a key role in the transition to a more sustainable economy, allowing consumers to "make sustainable choices and advance responsible behaviour". It is easy to argue that Tesco is about to ditch a progressive environmental measure that simply requires a bit more patience and investment.
And yet, Tesco is right to complain that without other retailers getting involved carbon labelling in the UK is always going to struggle to reach the "critical mass" required to become truly effective. People can only make a sustainable choice to select the lowest carbon products if large numbers of products are labelled and the greenest options are clear. The current labels are not pervasive enough and, when they are visible, not enough is done to make them prominent and understandable.
So, what next? It is informative that as Tesco backs away from carbon footprint labelling, simpler environmental labels such as the Vestas-backed Windmade scheme for products made using wind energy or the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) label for sustainable seafood are gathering momentum. It is also important to note that labelling schemes such as the MSC and Fairtrade labels required years of educational efforts and marketing investment before they truly broke through into the retailing mainstream.
The carbon footprinting sector will continue to expand with or without Tesco's direct involvement. Businesses know they can't manage what they don't measure, and as such more and more firms will continue to invest in analysing and understanding their various carbon footprints. However, it is to be hoped Tesco is serious when it says it is reviewing its options, and will now find a new and more effective way to make carbon and other environmental data available to its customers. It would be a tragedy for a supermarket that is so effective at both shaping and responding to its customers' needs to ditch a successful and progressive environmental initiative simply because it is a few years ahead of its time. Ultimately, more of us than Tesco realises will miss its carbon labels when they are gone.
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