Can a Carbon Label make a difference?

carbon footprint airplane exhaustIf the sight of 5g poly-unsaturated fats on the nutritional label of a product makes you bleary-eyed, the label next to it declaring “10g CO2” may not add much to your shopping experience. On the other hand, it may excite you that you’ll be able to compare retail products on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Perhaps it’s just the information you’ve been looking for.

The Environmental Audit Committee of the UK published a report on the 23rd or March, 2009 that recommends the implementation of carbon labeling on all products in the UK to send a clear signal to consumers.

“The Government should encourage carbon labelling for all products and services as a priority but ultimately as part of a universal and comprehensive environmental labelling scheme. It should legislate for this if necessary.”
Environmental Audit Committee Report

Retail giant Tesco is already trialing carbon labels on 20 of its products in the UK using labels from the independent labeling body The Carbon Trust. Their carbon label provides information about how much CO2 was emitted in the production, manufacturing, and transport and will be emitted in the use of the product. Companies have to commit to reducing their carbon footprints over a two-year period or the Carbon Trust will withdraw the label. Some of the labels feature a comparison with the carbon dioxide emissions of competitor products.

“Given the challenge we face in decarbonising the economy, the Committee believes carbon labelling may prove the single most important environmental measure in promoting behavioural change at home, at work and in business,” said Colin Challen MP, chairman of the Environmental Information Sub-Committee. “If government initiatives, such as the Act on CO2 campaign, are to help individuals cut their carbon footprint, labels dealing with ’embedded’ carbon are vital.”

Criticism of the Carbon Trust labelling project has largely focused on the way uk-carbon-labelthe label communicates the carbon footprint of a product. They feature a picture of a footprint and an amount of CO2 in grams. The Sustainable Development Commission, an independent watchdog on sustainable development, is concerned about whether it is understood by consumers or relevant to their interests.

“A carbon footprint in grams of CO2 provides no clear message or reassurance about the sustainability of a product. It may even confuse people into thinking that the grams of carbon are actually in the product.”
The Sustainable Development Commission

Some argue that the products and services we buy make up so little of our carbon footprint, that an effort to address it is pointless. They argue that a carbon label is too easily ignored, just like poly-unsaturated fat on a nutritional label, and any CO2 savings made by comparing carbon footprint labels is vastly overshadowed by the fact that you drove their in a gas powered car to pick them up.

A carbon label will clearly not fight climate change on its own. A clear price on carbon (carbon taxes, cap and trade schemes) is necessary, but adding carbon dioxide emissions into the daily awareness of the average citizen can still drive big changes. They key to the success of a carbon label is if consumer choice really reverberates through the supply chain and drives companies to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. Encouragingly, the Carbon Trust says that “even the pilot scheme had encouraged manufacturers significantly to reduce carbon from their production processes.”

Carbon labelling is not, and should not, be used to represent all environmental impacts and will not fight climate change on its own. Given the challenge countries are faced with in decarbonizing their economies, every effort to raise awareness about carbon dioxide emissions is important. However, it needs to be universal across products and sectors. Otherwise, it will just add to the proliferation of patchwork environmental labels that don’t employ a common methodology and do not gain consumer trust and awareness.

Model of a CO2 molecule

Model of a CO2 molecule


The Carbon Label (UK) – Label Basics

The Carbon Label was developed by The Carbon Trust, which is an independent company set up by the UK government in 2001. They consult with public and private companies to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. The Carbon Label allows consumers to see how much carbon went into the production and transportation of products from participating companies. This carbon label is used in the UK, where involvement is voluntary.


The Carbon Label uses a complete supply chain analysis methodological approach. They try to include the carbon dioxide produced throughout the product’s life, including the raw materials, production, transportation, storage, use, and disposal.

Read a directory of products currently sporting a Carbon Label here.

The Footprinting Process

Companies are asked several key questions about their entire supply chain when the carbon trust is calculating their carbon footprint:

  • What materials are used?
  • Where did they come from?
  • Where are they going?
  • What requires energy (fuel, electricity)?
  • What could cause direct emissions?

There is uncertainty in the process. The resulting margin of error is not communicated on the label. The carbon trust has developed rules of comparability involving secondary data collection that ensures that any product labelled with the carbon label is comparable with any other carbon label. Basically, they keep data tables as a benchmark so that even as they update information about carbon dioxide production for various processes, the labels can still be updated and compared.

Publicly Available Specification

The Carbon Trust helped to develop a  Publicly Available Specification (PAS) with the British Standards Council. A PAS is a specification available to everyone that can be used to assess the greenhouse gas emissions of a product over its lifecycle. This standardized methodology can be referred to for comparability. The Carbon Label lifecycle analysis uses this PAS methodology to calculate carbon footprints. Read more about the PAS here.

Information from The Carbon Trust.

Forest Stewardship Council – Label Basics

Forest Stewardship Council Label

Forest Stewardship Council Label

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label is an internationally used label intended to signify that the wood product has been more ethically obtained than alternatives. FSC uses independent product certification bodies to decide if an operation meets its principles. Forest managers can pick which body they’d like to work with, the body carries out a certification audit, and the operation can be re-audited if it doesn’t pass.

FSC Principles:

Principle 1.
Compliance with all applicable laws and international treaties

Principle 2.
Demonstrated and uncontested, clearly defined, long–term land tenure and use rights

Principle 3.
Recognition and respect of indigenous peoples’ rights

Principle 4.
Maintenance or enhancement of long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers and local communities and respect of worker’s rights in compliance with International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions

Principle 5.
Equitable use and sharing of benefits derived from the forest

Principle 6.
Reduction of environmental impact of logging activities and maintenance of the ecological functions and integrity of the forest

Principle 7.
Appropriate and continuously updated management plan

Principle 8.
Appropriate monitoring and assessment activities to assess the condition of the forest, management activities and their social and environmental impacts

Principle 9.
Maintenance of High Conservation Value Forests (HCVFs) defined as environmental and social values that are considered to be of outstanding significance or critical importance

Principle 10.
In addition to compliance with all of the above, plantations must contribute to reduce the pressures on and promote the restoration and conservation of natural forests.


Forest management certification
FSC is a voluntary label, applied after an inspection by an independent organization to see if it meets the principles and criteria. It can also be applied to tree plantations.


  • Small and Low Intensity Managed Forests streamlined procedures to help small operations get certified (100 -1000ha depending on the country). Low intensity refers to a harvesting rate of less than 20% of the mean annual growth in timber and either less than 5,000 cubic metres annually harvested or, over the certificate lifetime, less than 5,000 cubic metres annually on average. Forest lands that are used solely for harvesting of non-timber forest products also qualify. Plantations for non-timber forest products, however, do not.
  • Group certification – Groups can be any size (biggest was 300 so far) but they can be any number as long as they meet principles and criteria. This format cuts down on the costs for small operations.

Chain of custody (CoC) certification

Certified material must also be tracked through the journey from forest to customer (processing, transformation, manufacturing and distribution). Any product that has the label must also have chain of custody certification. Anyone making, relabeling, changing, repackaging FSC products must be FSC CoC certified.

FSC controlled wood

FSC Controlled Wood Label

FSC Controlled Wood Label

A label like the one to the left can be applied to products that can contain parts which are not fully FSC certified. The need to allow inclusion of non-certified material has arisen because there is not yet enough FSC raw material available. So, manufacturers can mix sources and use the FSC mixed sources label. Sometimes the label includes a percentage to convey how much of the product is fully FSC certified. The non-certified portion of the materials still has to meet standards and the following sources are rejected as unacceptable sources.

  1. Illegally harvested wood
  2. Wood harvested in violation of traditional and civil rights
  3. Wood harvested in forests in which High Conservation Values (areas particularly worth of protection) are threatened through management activities
  4. Wood harvested from conversion of natural forests
  5. Wood harvested from areas where genetically modified trees are planted
Information from the Forest Stewardship Council website.