carbon labelling: help or hindrance?

Back in 2007, Sir Terry Leahy of Tesco (that well known eco-warrior), grabbed the headlines briefly by saying that Tesco would carbon label all their products. Last week they changed their mind, citing cost and complexity, plus difficulties in making the information meaningful to customers. Acting on the enthusiasm of one of my staff, and with the aid of Exeter University, we briefly carbon labelled our vegboxes in 2007. We never made much noise about it as I was pretty sure it was a futile exercise. The idea that well-meaning customers would choose the low carbon box and so drive us towards being a lower carbon business appealed to the academics. However after a few months I had not spoken to a single customer whose purchasing decision was influenced by the figures, and we dropped it.

The idea that the free choices of informed consumers will drive our capitalist institutions towards making better environmental choices was always flawed. The issues are too complex and too susceptible to the murky world of greenwash and spin. Was Tesco’s proposed carbon labelling really a calculated strategy to abdicate environmental responsibility to customers, and to continue with business as normal while hiding behind the ‘we just provide what they say they want’ line?

Is paper packaging better than plastic? (Not usually). Are UK hothouse peppers better than Spanish cold tunnel ones? (No, by a factor of 3:10). Is biodiesel an environmentally sensible fuel? (Rarely). We’ve researched such topics as best we can, and made appropriate use of the facts where relevant to the business. But consumer choice won't save us from climate change as most people cannot easily get clear answers to such dilemmas. It would be great if our government could give us a steer or even legislate sensibly to edit our choices, but they're so obsessed with short-term popularity that David Cameron seems more concerned with that ludicrous windmill on his house, than formulating a coherent energy policy.

Understanding the Riverford carbon footprint has helped us reduce it and plan sensibly for the future, but it’s a complex, boring subject and up to us, not our customers, to understand and manage. But if you're interested, see our research findings at www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk.

Guy Watson