Carbon footprint labelling

Consumers want to do the right thing for the environment but sometimes brands make it difficult for them to make the right decisions. Companies are designing for it, businesses want it, and the planet needs it. The good news is that consumers have embraced sustainability and overwhelmingly support the idea of making environmentally conscious choices, they just need a little help in doing so.

Given the increased awareness about climate change it’s no surprise there’s been a monumental shift in consumer awareness and wanting to live a greener lifestyle. Whether it’s the amount of plastic used on products, their carbon footprint or the amount of packaging being placed on the market; consumer interest in protecting the planet is growing and kick-starting the movement for brands to communicate clear and consistent eco-messaging.

Sustainability savvy

In our social media driven world, consumer knowledge about sustainability and ethical sourcing is now more advanced than it ever has been. Consumer expectation of brands is also becoming less and less flexible; those able to strike that elusive balance between transparency and brand affinity will surely gain competitive advantage and be rewarded with a quick-fire return on investment. 

To capitalise on the growing opportunity, brands need to help consumers by clearly communicating how products achieve environmental goals - consumers want to make smart choices that help the planet, it’s just a case of being transparent and showing them the way.


Greenwashing is not a new phenomenon. Since the early 1980s, the term has gained broad recognition and used extensively to describe the practice of making unwarranted or exaggerated claims of sustainability or environmental friendliness of a product.

Although it’s been around for many years, greenwashing has risen sharply recently as brands strive to meet escalating consumer demand for greener products and services. One thing’s for sure, this has made things even more confusing for consumers trying to navigate the minefield of sustainable products and claims. The term is certainly gaining relevance.

While advertising regulations do exist, there are no guidelines or universally accepted definition of what terms like ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco’ actually mean. This has given brands free licence to market products as ‘green’, often at inflated prices, without having to adhere to a clear definition of that term.

Next time you go to the supermarket, take a look at the shelves through an ‘eco-consumer’ lens - which products are better options for the environment? Which brand truly represents the best eco-choice?

Against this backdrop, the spotlight has fallen once again on carbon footprint labelling, seen as the saviour for consumers wanting to understand what products actually represent.

What’s carbon labelling?

Carbon footprint is considered one of the most accurate tools for consumers to access a product’s green credentials. Carbon labelling communicates the amount of carbon used to manufacture, transport and dispose of that product. The idea of including this information on packaging has often been considered by brands but never adopted at scale. Companies across the world have pledged to implement carbon labelling in 2021-22 as part of their corporate social responsibility commitments which has resulted in renewed focus.

Time for reevaluation

Carbon labelling is not new news. As far back as 2007, British retailer Tesco announced plans to include carbon footprint labelling on all its products but this proved to be short lived. After adding the label to around five hundred products, the company silently stopped implementation due to the complexity of calculating data and the fact that none of their competitors had followed suit. The retailer tacitly acknowledged there was a real challenge in effectively communicating this complex data in a meaningful way and that the effectiveness of the labelling had been undermined by lack of regulation forcing other retailers to comply.

Tomatoes versus washing machines

Calculating carbon footprints remains one of the biggest challenges faced by brands looking to adopt labelling. Even calculating something as simple as vegetable production has proved to be a challenge given the number of stages involved. What method of fertilisation was used? How were the vegetables moved through the supply chain and packaged? Did land deforestation take place to make room for farmland? How much water was used during irrigation? Not easy!

If measuring the footprint of a tomato is no easy task, then what can be said about something like a new washing machine or car?

Within the UK, a standard marketing tactic for selling cars has been the communication of vehicle carbon emissions, however, this metric has nothing to do with the carbon footprint of producing the car but is relative to the effectiveness of the engine on the road. Again, very confusing!

Another challenge is the communication of data. According to research, the majority of consumers have no idea what either 15g or 20kg of carbon represents. Use of numerical data would therefore have very little impact – it’s one thing giving consumers the data but brands also need to educate consumers on what those numbers actually mean and help put this into context.

Confusion abounds

The sheer number of eco-labels in the market also complicates who and what consumers should trust. The definition of what qualifies something to be advertised as an ‘eco-option’ is subject to interpretation from many different viewpoints, obfuscating industry-wide standards.

The Ecolabel Index, an independent global directory of ecolabels and environmental certification schemes, has indicated there are currently more than 400 eco-label certifications across the world, covering 25 industry sectors. These labels signify everything from animal-free lab testing to sustainable building practices. The standards required to achieve certification also differ extensively.

To add to the confusion, some brands have even created their own eco-symbols, making consumers believe they hold an official third-party certification, which is not always the case. These ‘soft’ labels have proved difficult to control and understand as they’re so unclear and insignificant. When you consider the labels are used on everything from vegetables to plasma TVs, you can understand how hard it is for consumers to differentiate a ‘green product’ from a ‘red one’.

Some brands opt for a ‘reduction’ label, showing they’ve achieved a drop in emissions, whilst others have opted for a ‘lower’ label, highlighting products that have a significantly lower impact than their equivalents.

It’s certainly an eco-label jungle out there!

Traffic-light system

Research has shown that it’s much better to communicate complex data via a simple traffic light colour coding system. In an eco-context, this would make it much easier for consumers to determine whether a product has a low, medium, or high level of sustainability. Comparison between different products using the same criteria would also become easier. Consumers are already used to using this system through food labelling and colour coding which shows whether food has a low, medium or high nutritional rating.

The future of carbon labelling

Carbon labelling is still very much in its infancy and there’s a long way to go before it can be trusted by consumers and businesses alike. Substantial progress has already been made in outlining the benefits, problems and potential solutions. Current debate has created this dynamic, independent of the general drive by consumers wanting to help the environment and wanting to do it now.

Carbon labelling now appears to provide the best option for consumers to understand a product’s eco-credentials, particularly if a simple traffic light system is adopted. Provision of the information will not be a panacea for sustainable consumption but a good starting point to make informed choices.

Lessons have been learnt from the failed Tesco roll-out in 2013, and brands such as Oatly and Quorn have started to take up the mantle by including carbon footprint labelling on their packaging. Unilever is leading the charge for larger organisations stating that “transparency about carbon footprint will be an accelerator in the global race to zero emissions, and it is our ambition to communicate the carbon footprint of every product we sell”. For an estimated portfolio of around 70,000 products, that will be no mean feat to deliver but they’ve a much better chance of success than when Tesco embarked on similar journey eight years ago; there’s now widespread recognition of the challenges ahead for one thing and acceptance we need to tread a path of collaboration and consolidation to progress.

Cross-industry collaboration will ensure brand eco-claims become easier to understand, standardised measuring methodology will ensure brands operate on a level playing field and labelling will, over time, become more consistent, credible and accurate. In the meantime, consumers will continue to challenge the products they buy, businesses will invest even more in green marketing, and carbon labelling and ratings schemes will continue to grow as a key driver in all product purchasing decisions.