There are flaws with carbon labelling, but it’s a way of getting a clear message on a company’s sustainability efforts into the hands of the consumer

Tesco has recently added to the noise on carbon labelling by introducing such labels for its own brand milk. We now know the approximate carbon content of a pint of milk: 800g for semi-skimmed, more for full cream.

How well does this work as consumer information? You know, the sort of consumer information that will shape buying behaviour?

Not very well. For a start, nobody knows if 800g is a good result for a pint of milk. Secondly, it doesn’t stand side by side with another pint of milk that has made it to 750g – as no other brands have carbon labelling – so consumer choice cannot be exercised as a result of the information. Thirdly, whereas I can understand why I should regulate my calorie intake, and therefore compare the calories in a food item with my advisable amount for the day, I do not know what my carbon budget is. Or should be.

Supply chain impact

That said, there are two very good reasons why these labels are an interesting and useful experiment. Neither of them has to do with changing consumer behaviour.

The first is down to the impact such labels have up the supply chain. In a conversation I had previously with Tesco, it said the chief impact of food labelling had been that suppliers had begun to voluntarily reformulate their foods in line with the “good v bad” scales that were now highly visible.

Once it is clear that a powerful factor is in place, against which a retailer like Tesco is being measured and judged, suppliers have the opportunity to show themselves as being well positioned to help. The maxim should be: the problem of my customer is my opportunity.

The second is a new thought for me – the carbon label as a nugget of corporate social responsibility reporting, delivered via packaging into the hands of the customer.

Customers don’t read responsibility reports. And unless there is a fundamental shift in the make-up of the human psyche, customers will almost certainly never read them. It doesn’t mean they don’t care. It’s just an alien form of communication to them.

Commitment counts

The carbon label doesn’t just give a number – the embedded carbon (or its equivalent as the main greenhouse impact of milk is methane from cows) is there in all its mystery. And so is the commitment of the company to reduce that impact.

This is relevant, and easily understandable to the customer. If I buy milk from Tesco, I don’t necessarily feel I need to know about its entire business. But its commitment to reduce the impact of the product I buy from them is relevant and personal to me.

Tesco tells me about its intention and then, latterly, tells me what it achieved via the milk carton. This could work. It could be the beginning of the process that engages me, as a customer, with the challenge that a retailer like Tesco faces.

It confronts me with an open story. “We are trying to do this – we don’t quite know how we’re going to get there.” And any good storyteller can tell you that open stories are far more interesting and intriguing than closed ones. (We came, we saw, we reduced carbon.)

I would like to see any of the retailers, or the goods manufacturers, commit to making their packaging a key part of their reporting approach. Target customers as a key audience for your responsibility report, and then think of all the ways you can tell them the story that is most relevant to the product they have just bought.

Always, of course, with an easy-to-use link to more details if they want it.

Don’t confuse

Nothing big, nothing complicated. The aim is to deal at the level of simple promises, and the story about whether that gets delivered or not. There is an imperative not to confuse with too much information.

At the same time, I would move the carbon label away from any appearance or suggestion that it is a consumer endorsement brand, like a Fairtrade label for carbon. The plethora of endorsement labels is definitely diluting the impact of all for the bedazzled customers.

And by the way, if you do this, you have to do it fully. Which means that if the number goes up, not down, you have to ’fess up, and say why.

Just as honesty in reporting wins brownie points, so is it likely to do at point of sale.

Mallen Baker is founder of Business Respect.

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