I'm all about transparency and disclosure. Just ask my two teenaged kids, who I pepper constantly with disclosure-laced questions. "Where are you going? How are you getting there? Who will be there?"
Invariably, their muted responses leave me feeling shortchanged and disappointed. Yes, I'll get a location and a name or two, but not much else.
I mention this because there's lots of talk these days about improving product labeling so consumers are better informed about the environmental, social and global warming impacts of the products they buy. This is a great idea and exciting projects are already underway. But we've got a long way to go before consumers can trust these labels enough to tangibly change their buying habits because of them.
I bought a pair of Timberland hiking shoes last week, for example, and the box included a "nutritional label" detailing the energy used in making the shoes, the portion that was renewable, and where the shoes were made: Simona, China. The labels are cutting edge, especially when you realize that a major manufacturer has never done this before.
Still, I was left with a few questions. A close reading of the label reveals that the five percent renewable energy used to make the shoes pertains only to Timberland-owned factories. Is the factory in Simona, China owned by Timberland? No. The label touts that Timberland provides 119,766 hours of service in "our communities." Is Simona one of those communities?
And why is there no info on the boots’ atmospheric carbon impact? Some companies are providing such labels. Small UK-based businesses, including the makers of Boots Organic shampoo and Walkers Crisps, will soon be providing labels showing how many grams of carbon dioxide were emitted in making their products and delivering them to store shelves. In case you are curious, a bag of Walkers cheese-and-onion crisps has a 75-gram footprint, which includes everything from potato farming to the disposal of the empty bag. This is the kind of backstory we need to know.
Obviously, carbon labeling needs to be done on a larger scale than bags of potato chips. How about carbon labels for cars and computers? Dell Computer, for instance, is looking to boost its carbon disclosure. the company is already pressing its top suppliers to provide regular reports on their own greenhouse emissions; the information will affect how much future business Dell will do with the suppliers. This is a big step!
All of this country's biggest manufacturers rely on overseas factories to make virtually all of their products. Wal-Mart alone imports more than $15 billion of goods every year from thousands of suppliers in China. Yet, as we've learned all too well from the recent pet food and fish contamination debacles, we know precious little about these massive supply chains. Until companies like Wal-Mart demand to know how much environmental and social impacts these overseas suppliers are having -- and disclose it -- consumers will be as wary of those labels as I am of my kid’s answers.
Mindy S. Lubber is president of Ceres, a leading coalition of investors, environmental groups and other public interest organizations working with companies to address sustainability challenges.
Walkers crisps is not a small UK brand - it is part of the same brand family that is Lays in the USA, and is ultimately owned by Pepsico.
I wonder if a Lays potato chips pack footprint is bigger or smaller? Or if Pepsico have any plans to expand this exercise to any of their other brands?
It's great that manufacturers are slowly starting to disclose the environmental footprints of their products on the labels, but as you point out, it's not always clear what the figures are based on so you'll have to take them with a pinch of salt (sorry, couldn't resist). I wrote a blog post about this recently, in which I argue that what we really need is (slightly) more detailed information and ratings from a trustable community website, available via your mobile phone. I doubt you'd do this every time you buy a product, but if you're unsure about which is the brand with the best eco-credentials, you could check it out on your mobile device - and next time, you'll know which brand of crisps to reach for.