Is carbon-labelling the future of consumer goods?

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Most of us would assume an apple imported from New Zealand would have a larger carbon footprint than one grown in the UK, however, this isn’t always the case. There are multiple factors, both hidden and visible, within our foods life cycle which can contribute to a product’s carbon footprint – and in this specific case – the apple from New Zealand wins.

Amidst the growing awareness of climate change, and governmental pressures to achieve climate targets – the focus has shifted from calorie labelling to carbon labelling – but what does this mean?

Carbon labelling communicates a product’s environmental impact to consumers.

A products carbon footprint is the full inventory of all greenhouse gas emissions released throughout a product life cycle. When calculating this, it is important to define the scope as these can vary. The most common approach used by the consumer goods industry is cradle- to- grave, which captures emissions from the extractions of raw materials, through the products manufacture, distribution, use and eventual disposal. This approach is widely recognised and in line with the principles of a circular economy. However, is this enough? Is excluding other environmental factors such as biodiversity and animal welfare sufficient?

It is estimated that the consumer goods industry accounts for 60% of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, therefore its imperative that large institutions set a precedent for smaller businesses to follow.

Unilever recently announced the introduction of carbon labels for over 70,000 products. It is the first big move by a global player to introduce carbon footprint labelling and is likely to disrupt supply chains in the food and drinks industry and cause other companies (hopefully!) to accelerate their plans.

The National Food Strategy published last week highlighted that the Food Standards Agency should work with government and key industry bodies to “develop a harmonised and consistent food-labelling system”.  It said “Creating a simple and consistent method of labelling would ensure that all shops and manufacturers give us the same kind of information about our food. Having to record information about the environmental impact of food production could also influence the way that manufacturers make their products.”

In alignment with these proposed changes, non-profit organisation Foundation Earth is piloting a scheme this August which will see a range of food & drink products labelled with an “eco- score”, ranking the environmental impact of each item – allowing consumers to easily assess whether they are buying goods that have a low carbon footprint from suppliers focused on sustainability.

So what’s next?

At 4C, we are seeing more of our clients seeking to understand their carbon footprint and what they can do to mitigate and offset emissions. To support them, we have refined our in-house technology which provides transparency across the supply chain, with a detailed carbon footprint breakdown. This helps identify the root causes of emissions and the projects that can be carried out to make an organisation more sustainable.

A “must-have” on the path to net-zero is to know your numbers. In most companies Scope 3 GHG emissions are not only the most difficult to calculate but also the largest. Our technology provides a scope 3 GHG signature by customer and the capability to track & report reduction programmes. Our clients are, therefore, able to actively engage suppliers with the aim of reducing and offsetting the GHG emissions that their relationship gives rise to.

From a consumer level, expect to see more of your favourite products in stores with some type of carbon-labelling – and try to spend a bit more time in understanding what this means. The key priority for the consumer goods industry and environmental players is developing a single consistent approach, with a label that is trustworthy, robust, and inclusive whilst consistently listening to the asks of our generations growing concerns of climate change.

If you want to learn more about what 4C do in this area and how we can support your business, reach out to Jeremy Smith Jeremy.Smith@4cassociates.com our consumer goods lead.

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