Veritas Viridis – 3 – Carbon-Footprint Labels

Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are gaining traction around the world, with some impressive results. An article in The Economist (Following the Footprints, June 4, 2011) noted that between 1990 and 2008, European Union countries reduced total carbon emissions in their own territories by 6%. We were intrigued by what we read next: “But this improvement was almost exactly cancelled out by the extra emissions associated with goods imported into the EU from China.” It reminded us of the old adage “What gets measured gets managed” (Peter Drucker, 1954), and highlights just how much doesn’t get noticed because it’s not on the radar. Clearly, paying attention to carbon emissions related to imported products matters a lot.

Individually we can reduce carbon emissions by curtailing our consumerist impulses and buying less, but we can also make a big difference by buying more wisely. Since 2007, carbon-footprint labels have begun to appear on products to help shoppers make better choices by informing them how many grams of carbon-dioxide (or equivalent) emissions are incurred in making and transporting them. There is even a global standard for carbon labelling in the works, ISO14067, due for release in 2012.

As with most “green” standards and labels (like LEED, for example), their value is not only in quantifying for consumers their respective object’s environmental merits, but also in the process that must be gone through to obtain them. As we emphasize to our clients, “It’s all about process” (http://blueandyellow.ca/portfolio-items/other-process/). An example: In the process of calculating the carbon-footprint for a package of potato chips, Walkers discovered an unexpected opportunity to save energy. They were buying potatoes by gross weight, so farmers kept their potatoes in humidified storage to increase water content. Walkers then had to fry the potatoes longer to drive out the extra moisture. They switched to buying potatoes by dry weight, which ended up reducing frying time by 10%, and farmers saved the cost and energy of humidification. Walkers reduced the footprint of their chips by 7% since the introduction of its first carbon label.

Those of us keen to advance the sustainability initiative can lobby government to introduce mandatory product labelling (http://www.ec.gc.ca/ges-ghg/default.asp?lang=En&n=6B19D435-1). When implemented, labelling will have the immediate benefits of helping us make better purchasing decisions and of putting carbon emissions on the radar screen of every manufacturer (on a level playing field) all the way up the production chain. That will then shift the onus back onto us, consumers, who will be given the opportunity to actually read the labels and act accordingly.

Not only will labels indicate the manufacturing and transport footprint, but also (attention buyers…) the use-phase emissions, to which customer behaviour can make a huge difference. For example, 57% of the carbon-footprint of Levi 501 jeans is due to emissions associated with our washing them after purchase. However, washing them in cold water and drying them on a line reduces use-phase emissions by 90%. (“It’s all about process”.)

Carbon labels promise to make carbon-footprints and carbon flows visible – and what’s visible is more likely to be managed.

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About Peter Clark

An international leader in sustainable development and green design, Peter Clark brings a wealth of experience in resort, institutional and commercial development, renovations, property management and operations in Canada and Mexico.

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