Eco-Labeling- The Complexity Behind Simplicity

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eco-labeling promotes sustainability|photo|svanen

Is it really relevant to have eco-labels on potato chips? Maybe not!

Will we ever see the day when all products carry environmental labels with data on carbon emissions and other impacts? Recent news tells us a definitive…maybe. The attempt to give corporate buyers and end consumers more sustainability data about the products they are purchasing has had a somewhat tortured history.

Tesco has been a leader in sharing carbon footprint information with consumers having reviewed and labeled over 500 products. The company’s efforts came on the heels of Pepsi’s first foray into labeling with its walker’s potato chips brand. Since then, however, it has been tirelessly working towards how to make data labeling work.

Is carbon footprint the most useful data for customers to have? Or total energy used during the product lifetime? The best thing to share will heavily depend on the product- the labels on energy hogs, like light bulbs, air conditioners, and cars, should tell us the total energy use and cost to operate over a year or the product’s lifetime. For milk or snacks, the energy used to take it to shelves makes sense but again, it may not be helpful for consumers. So, even without the specific grounds of carbon, a combination of qualitative and quantitative information could still make sense.

How can you summarize the sustainability of a product on a label? This is perhaps the toughest question and literally, hundreds of varying eco-labels out there attest to the challenge of trying. In some cases, like a car, maybe the concept of “sustainability” is fairly straightforward given how much of the impact comes in the “use phase” of the product- if you are getting 50 percent better fuel efficiency you know you are reducing the impact a great deal. But how sustainable are 80 grams of carbon for a bag of chips?

Knowing the exact grounds of carbon per product is a process that takes long- on average months. It is an interesting time to reach that conclusion but the hustle involved is quite intense. Companies need to seek a level of sophistication with better data and carbon allocation methods. It is in the business to a business world that demands more information on every product. From the sustainability consortium for retail and consumer product- to the sustainable apparel coalition for outdoor gear and clothing industry, groups are coming together to gather data and set standards for measuring footprints. 

I am confident that companies such as EcoMark Africa and other major retailers will continue to ask suppliers for carbon data and other sustainability data while picking products for their shelves and setting up special promotions. The greening of the supply chain is the most dependable of trends in the sustainability sphere because there are so many clear benefits for companies when they know their value chain footprints: from cost savings to risk reduction to better brand storytelling. 

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