To tackle the climate crisis, first brands must be honest about their carbon footprint

As the Advertising Association launches two new climate groups, one idea it should explore is the introduction of carbon footprint labels.

carbon footprint labellingThe climate crisis is well and truly upon us. As Australia burns, Bangladesh sinks and the Doomsday clock ticks ever closer to midnight companies need to tackle their contribution head on.

But this is already being done, I hear you cry. We have 2030 goals! A commitment on plastic! And even a sustainability section on our website!

The environment is not something marketers are shy to talk about, with companies from Coca-Cola to Adidas to Unilever desperate to highlight their sustainability credentials.

But still more must done. And there are two things in particular that are desperately needed in order for businesses to truly tackle their impact: collective action, and full transparency and accountability.

There are a number of ways to do this of course. The Guardian’s decision to ban fossil fuel ads is as Greenpeace suggests, a watershed moment. But to be truly accountable, brands need to be honest about their impact and that can only be done through carbon labelling.

Picture this: every ad for every product comes with a note at the end about how much how much CO2 has been emitted during the production, processing and transport of a product.

This would also be mirrored on-pack, with consumers able to look at the carbon cost of each product just as they would nutritional information on food. They could then make decisions based not just on price or features but on environmental impact as well.

This idea might sound familiar because it it is. Tesco pledged to put carbon labels on all its 70,000 products in 2007. However, five years on the retailer dropped the idea, citing the lack of uptake from competitors.

“We thought retailers would move quickly to do it as well, giving it critical mass, but that hasn’t happened,” Tesco’s climate change director, Helen Fleming, told The Grocer at the time.

This is why collective action is so vital. Tesco alone can’t solve the problem and we need every company to commit to showing the true environmental cost of their products by signing up to an independent measure. Only then can consumers judge the worst offenders and track whether efforts to improve are really making a difference.

With consumers able to look at the carbon cost of each product, they could then make decisions based not just on price or features but on environmental impact.

This is an area I would encourage the Advertising Association’s two new climate action groups to look at. Working across the ad industry, the aim is to coordinate how the sector can help combat climate change.

And one of its main goals is “supporting the Advertising Standards Authority’s plan for exploring the role that advertising regulation can play in response to concerns around climate change and the human impact on the environment”.

According to research company StreetBees, almost eight in 10 consumers worldwide claim sustainability is a priority when buying products.

However, only 4% actually cited it when asked unprompted and in-the-moment of purchase.

This could change if the information was readily available and became ingrained when shopping. Sustainability would no longer be confined to a corporate section of the website and would help build trust between brands and people. However, to build that trust there needs to be a comparable universal standard.

Brands concerned this might impact purchasing are right to be worried. More than a fifth (21%) of consumers would pay more for brands that label their products, according to a study from The Carbon Trust. Almost half (47%) are more likely to choose low carbon labelled goods over non-labelled.

There are signs this idea is taking hold. Carbon labels are an area both Nestle and Premier Foods are exploring, while the Carbon Trust already works with a number of companies, including Coca-Cola, to calculate the carbon footprint of products.

To do that, The Carbon Trust looks at the at the total supply chain of a product or service. This includes gathering data on the carbon emissions associated with the resources, manufacturing, transportation, distribution, retail, use, and end of life of a product or service.

Its calculation method and the resulting footprint are verified against either one or more internationally-recognised standards: PAS 2050, the GHG Protocol Product standard or ISO 14067. This certification lapses after a two-year period and must be recalculated and re-certified.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges – consumer awareness and competition on pack being the obvious ones.

But these can be tackled. And so let’s have 2020 be the year that brands work together to build trust across the industry and prove to consumers that the climate crisis is more than just a marketing opportunity.