Matt Wright, Director of Customer Insight at the Energy Saving Trust takes a look at the issue of carbon labelling…

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On Monday, Valerie Elliott, the Consumer Editor of the Times wrote a piece about the validity of food labels in respect of organic pork. The crux of the article was that consumers are being misled, and confused as to what does or doesn’t constitute organically raised pork. The article went on to say that the RSPCA has written to Defra demanding descriptions used by some supermarkets be changed to avoid consumer confusion. Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with climate change. Well, I thought the article was interesting because it highlighted one of the major problems surrounding the proposed carbon labelling schemes being touted around at the moment. They are intended to make it easier and simpler for the consumer to know how much carbon has been used to make a product. The real question is whether they achieve this aim. I am not sure they do.

Our research certainly supports the fact that people want to have the option of buying energy efficient products. Our own Energy Saving Recommended scheme uses a label (see below) that makes it easy for consumers to identify the most energy efficient products. The evidence shows that it works. The reason for this is fairly simple. The label only has one – very easy to understand – meaning, which is “This product is one of the most energy efficient on the market”. Now that’s not to say the mechanics of the scheme are not robust. Every product has to undergo rigorous testing by an independent test centre before we allow the Energy Saving Recommended label to be used on it.  And, evidently in order for people to know what the label means, we’ve had to market it. To this effect, we have promoted it through our website, press, TV and radio advertising as well as numerous PR initiatives.

So, back to carbon labelling. Does putting a carbon value on a product make people more or less likely to buy it? Well, there are a couple of considerations. Unless you define what a good or bad level of carbon is for each product then how will the consumer know whether the carbon figure given on the label is high or low? Another is, how long will consumers spend comparing the carbon value of one product against another? The answer, according to Wal-Mart’s Senior Director of Global Supplier Initiatives, is not long at all – "I don’t know many customers who spend a lot of time in the grocery store looking at labels”. Closer to home, Nick Monger-Godfrey, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility for John Lewis & Waitrose said “I don’t think there’s enough research done that say there’s real consumer interest to procure products on the basis of carbon intensity”.

The bottom line is that there may be scope for carbon labelling in a few years time, but only if people sufficiently understand what the figures represent – and how they can compare them. As it stands, carbon labelling seems to me to smack of an idea which hasn’t been properly tested on the very people who are meant to act on the information i.e. individuals like you and me.   We need to stop overcomplicating things. There is so much conflicting noise about climate change coming from various organisations and the media anyway it seems illogical to make things more confusing for the consumer by asking them to consider and compare carbon values as well. There is even the possibility that carbon labelling could put some people who were looking to save energy off all together! A nightmare scenario. For us, the expansion of the Energy Saving Recommended scheme, across an ever increasing range of sectors and products represents the best and simplest way of giving the consumer instananeous knowledge of which products are the most energy efficient.

Instantly understood: the Energy Saving Recommended logo