Meet the carbon counters

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If counting carbon catches on as a mass consumer trend Britain’s retail landscape is nowhere near ready to meet the demand.

Managing budgets, diaries, calories and all of the other minutiae that are increasingly cramming their way into the corners of our daily lives just isn’t enough these days. We’ve now added counting carbon to our list of guilt-reducing habits that helps us sleep better at night knowing/believing we have made the world a less damaged place for our great-grandchildren.

And why not, if it’s as easy as turning off a light switch, or picking up a product from a shelf that clearly demonstrates it has less of a carbon footprint than either a rival product or a previous incarnation of that product.

But it isn’t. If those counting carbons were also calorie counters, they wouldn’t be very good at sticking to their diets, because carbon labelling just isn’t as widespread as it should be. If you look at the list of brands who have successfully earned the right to use the Carbon Trust’s carbon label, it barely makes a dent in the average consumer’s trip down the high street.

If I was to be a true carbon counter, I would be restricted to only shopping at Tesco, eating Walkers crisps and Kingsmill bread, and wearing Levi’s jeans. It might sound silly but more and more people will be looking to shape their purchasing patterns around guidance regarding carbon emissions.

According to a study of 1,000 consumers conducted by the Carbon Trust Standard, 56% said they would be more loyal to a brand if it could show at a glance that it is actively reducing its emissions. 56% also said they are more concerned than they were five years ago about whether the companies they buy from take responsibility for their impact on climate change.
The Carbon Trust Standard also partnered with brand value rating platform BrandZ to investigate the correlation between brand equity and environmental commitment. They claim that 20% of sales are linked to corporate reputation, and from this, around 2% is attributable directly to environmental reputation. It might not sound like much, but 2% of £1 bn is £20m.

The demand for help when navigating crowded supermarket shelves and deciding whose pockets to put money in exists. A study conducted last year by the Newcastle Business School found that 72% of people wanted to see carbon labels on food products.

In announcing the results of the Carbon Trust Standard’s survey, general manager Harry Morrison warned that brands should act before regulatory compliance is introduced, meaning there will no longer be any novelty in a brand showing a commitment to the environment.

But I think this is a case where consumers would welcome compliance to make carbon counting a consistent experience, with clearer labelling, so consumers can make choices based on facts. While Tesco might be the only supermarket that offers carbon labelling on its own branded products, how do I know if their carbon footprint is any worse than that of other products if I can’t compare it?

While the brands that have earned Carbon Trust labelling do deserve to be commended for their initiative, the labels lack meaning unless there is a wider industry context for them to sit against. Brands might not like being told what to do, but in this case, a single, legislated, industry standard would be more productive for consumers and business than the current voluntary commitment scheme.

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