No surprise that Tesco ditches carbon label

When he launched a project to label all 70,000 products in his supermarket’s portfolio, Sir Terry Leahy was undaunted  by the task: “Many of those people who talk about the need for a carbon currency say it is too complicated to develop; that it will take years. However, at Tesco, we believe in action, in overcoming hurdles, in making complex problems simple.”


Leahy has since moved on and the project has now been binned.


At the last count, in 2010, about 500 products had been labelled, which left 69,500. At that rate it would have taken centuries to complete the task. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that Tesco is reassessing how it communicates such issues to its customers.


Here, a number of experts give their views on the news.


David Symons, WSP director:

 “The trouble with just reporting a carbon number is it’s not very interesting, it’s difficult to compare products against each other, and it’s hard to put a number into context of everything else we do as consumers. The future of sustainability is to help customers understand the full sustainability story behind products in an engaging and interesting way.”


Jan-Kees Vis, Unilever global director sustainable sourcing development:

“There have always been some doubts about the question how consumers would interpret or use the information from a carbon label. Also, how often that information would need to change – think for instance about the carbon label for an apple, grown in the UK, plucked in September, hitting the shelves the same month (no storage) or in December (after 3 months in a cold store).


“It is good that Tesco’s gave it a try, but apparently they reached the conclusion that consumers are not really looking for this. I am convinced companies will continue to calculate carbon footprints, to inform their climate policies.”


Nicky Chambers, director, Best Foot Forward:

“Moving beyond carbon labelling makes a lot of sense. Carbon labels serve a purpose but uptake has been limited. Now more scaleable, business relevant and better value solutions are needed. The newly carbon literate consumer now wants the company to do the work of delivering lower carbon products and services across their whole product portfolios, not just for a few lines. Footprinting a whole product portfolio is smarter, quicker and ultimately will make more of a difference. It helps business integrate sustainability into existing business processes, bringing real changes on the ground.”


Spokeswoman for the Carbon Trust:

“Tesco is a valued customer of ours having been awarded the Carbon Trust Standard and having pioneered the use of the Carbon Reduction Label on some 500 of their products over the past four years and we are working with them to label several further products.  Their early adoption of the label has been followed by over one hundred companies, with our carbon reduction label now licensed for use in 19 countries around the world.  The annual sales value of goods carrying the label is some £3bn.  We are clearly disappointed that Tesco has decided to phase out over time the use of the label on cost grounds. We know that Tesco is reviewing future options and we will be actively supporting them in that review.  We are confident that our existing label customers and new customers will see the value of an internationally recognised carbon label backed by expert independent certification.”


Sara Pax, president of Bluehorse Associates:

“Tesco spent huge budgets labeling products with information that consumers are not yet ready to understand. Rather than consumer engagement or labeling, objectives such as cost and waste reduction and supply chain efficiencies should be motivating companies to measure environmental impacts along their products’ lifecycles.


“The silver lining that we see is that Tesco should now be more open to explore alternatives to the prohibitively expensive and complicated Carbon Trust scheme and should explore cost-saving objectives within the realm of product carbon footprinting using smarter, more time and cost efficient methods and tools that provide much more insight at a fraction of the resources.”


David Oglethorpe, a Professor of supply chain management at Newcastle Business School, has recently published a paper in the journal Food Policy: “The use and usefulness of carbon labelling food: A policy perspective from a survey of UK supermarket shoppers” (Zaina Gadema & David Oglethorpe, Vol 36 issue 36).

“From a survey of supermarket shoppers we show a high demand for carbon labels (although low awareness and some confusion) especially amongst younger consumers and it focuses on the unlikelihood of retailers ever voluntarily initiating carbon labels any further than on non-competing lines.  To get meaningful decarbonisation, consumers need to choose between within-category competing products and some mandatory guidelines and a coherent carbon labelling policy is needed across all retailers, otherwise, as we see in the Grocer article, some will just withdraw.”