Jacob Madsen likes to tell an anecdote to illustrate the challenges posed by product carbon labels.
He once showed a bag of potato chips to a bartender at the airport while traveling. The bag included a label: 72 grams of carbon, it read. What did the bartender think it meant?
"'I know carbon is not good for me,'" she told Madsen. "'I shouldn't have too much in my body.'"
Madsen, a senior consultant at environmental consulting firm ERM, took part in a panel discussion Monday exploring the ups and downs of carbon labeling at the Corporate Climate Response conference in Chicago. It's an evolving practice with pitfalls and the expense of accurately measuring product carbon footprints across supply chains that can span continents.
If companies can clear that hurdle, they then face the challenge of conveying the carbon label's significance to a general public that doesn't understanding its meaning.
"The challenge today is that within the carbon emissions accounting space, there's no relative measure to say what's good or bad," said Sujeesh Krishnan, a panelist and U.S. Business Development Manager of the Carbon Trust.
The United Kingdom-based NGO is working with Tesco on its carbon labeling program. Based on its research, the Carbon Trust found that consumers expect three things: third-party verification, real reductions, and a carbon value indicative of the "seriousness" of the initiative.
Krishnan compared consumer reaction to carbon labels to the public's initial response to nutritional labels: calorie counts meant nothing.
"Collectively, there's an educational challenge and process we need to go through as organizations to help consumers understand what this means," Krishnan said.
The label has the potential to open a dialogue between a company and its customers. For instance, Timberland's shoe labels include environmental information, giving consumers a glimpse into the company's materials purchasing decisions, said Betsy Blaisdell, Timberland's manager of environmental stewardship.
"I think people respect the fact that we jumped out there with something and appreciate the fact that we've been transparent and accountable ... I think it's helped elevate the brand a bit but I'm sure it's not influencing purchasing decisions," Blaisdell said.
In the U.S., climate change seems to be low on the public's radar, said Nancy Hirshberg, vice president of natural resources for Stonyfield Farms.
"Really, what they are contacting us about is not climate change," Hirshberg said. "It's recycling because to them, if you're a good environmental steward, you recycle."
She called for accurate standards companies could use without going broke trying to determine product footprints.
"What is it fundamentally," she asked, "that consumers need to know?"
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