Tesco carbon labels come unstuck

In 2007 Tesco launched what it called a “revolution in green consumption” which would see all its 70,000 products go through carbon footprint analysis and receive an accompanying carbon label. Five years and 500 labels on, the project has been ditched.


Reports suggested the supermarket had become frustrated by the lack of activity among other multiples to label their products too. As a result, there wasn’t the critical mass to make the concept worthwhile – the fact there aren’t enough products for consumers to be able to compare products was a common XXX of the scheme. For Tesco, cost and time had also been considerations.


The Carbon Trust, with which Tesco worked on the analysis and labelling, said it was “disappointed” with the decision. A spokeswoman pointed out that there are more than 100 companies using the labels, accounting for £3bn of goods.


Sustainability experts were not surprised by the decision (link to other story with detailed comments). Sara Pax, Bluehorse Associates president, said that Tesco spent huge amounts labeling products with information that “consumers are not yet ready to understand”.


WSP director, David Symons, added: “The trouble with just reporting a carbon number is it’s not very interesting. It’s difficult to compare products against each other.”


A recent study in the journal Food Policy looked at the demand for carbon labels among consumers. One of the authors, Professor David Oglethorpe from Newcastle Business School, told Foodservice Fotoprint that their survey showed a high demand for carbon labels, but low awareness and some confusion.


“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 [from the Tesco case], some will just withdraw,” he explained.


WSP’s Symons said companies needed to help customers understand the full sustainability story behind products in an engaging and interesting way.


There are brands looking seriously at how to achieve that. Smoothie maker Innocent did not go ahead with a carbon label on its products because it didn’t feel the information would have been any use to its consumers. However, the company’s co-founder recently suggested that he was looking at helping consumers to understand sustainable diets, of which environmental impact would be one element, through the use of simple graphs on its products (link to FF story).


Tesco has said that it wants to keep providing carbon information on products, but there was no indication of what form this will take.