It’s difficult for most of us to know the carbon footprint of our year, let alone our daily lives. Many of us have to rely on pre-made or pre-packaged products that give no inkling as to their environmental impact. With the reality of climate change becoming more apparent every day, it’s also becoming more important for us to be aware of how different products affect our own footprint.
In September 2020, Just Salad, a salad and grain bowl restaurant available in a few U.S. states, began including “carbon labels” next to various food options on their menu. Since then, Quorn Foods (a vegetarian meat alternative brand) and Oatly (oat milk) have started including carbon footprint calculations for their products as well. Meanwhile, Panera Bread has marked special items on their menus for having “low carbon footprints.”
But first, what is a carbon label? A carbon label is a new label added to products that calculates the greenhouse gas emissions created from the product. Often, this calculation does not only take carbon into account but also converts gasses like methane (that are more detrimental short-term versus the long-term effects of carbon dioxide) into the calculation. This is then provided as a CO2 per kilogram number on the packaging of the brand’s product or website.
However, there are several essential points to keep in mind when looking at these numbers. The first is that there is no standardized calculation at the moment. Meaning, not all companies will include the same processes in their calculations. The Carbon Trust is an organization trying to help standardize these calculations. However, even if companies become certified through them in the future, there are still two options. The first is cradle-to-gate, which calculates the emissions generated from sourcing materials, making the product, to getting it to the factory gate. That means it does not even take into account getting the product into your hands and beyond. On the other hand, cradle-to-grave carbon labeling considers everything from raw resources to the disposal of the products after you’re done using them.
Beauty brands are also starting to add carbon labels to their products. Unilever, the parent company of Dove, announced that as they’ve found that the sustainably-minded branches have been doing better, they’ll be adding carbon labels to all 70,000 products. Not wanting to be left behind, L’Oreal has announced that they plan to add carbon information to all of their “rinse-off” products by next year. Although this is excellent news, we have to be careful of greenwashing since, at this time, there are no regulations on how calculations are made and what is included in them. With more companies realizing “it pays to be green,” there may be more instances of greenwashing until these standardizations are put into place.
However, a study published in late March of 2021 showed that even the consumers who were either indifferent or were against knowing the carbon footprint of the products they were buying, purchased the product with the smaller footprint when presented with carbon labels. The research team from the University of Copenhagen found that the customers who were interested in knowing the climate impact reduced their footprint by 32% when empowered with carbon labels. While the “information avoiders,” who did not want to know, still had a 12% reduction of their footprint when the information was added to the packaging. This information is critical, especially since food accounts for a third of our individual carbon footprints. If the carbon labels became more reliable, would they influence your shopping habits?
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Photo: Mathilde Langevin on Unsplash