When will carbon footprint information be made available to the consumer?

Author: Peter West
27th March 2017

With the threat posed by global warming, there have been numerous awareness campaigns to bring the carbon footprint issue to the consumer’s attention. Specialized bodies, organizations and businesses have popped around the world to design methodologies to calculate the impact of human activity on the environment.

As a consumer, our heads spins at the complexity of carbon footprint calculation. How can we choose between greenhouse-grown tomatoes from overseas or locally grown tomatoes, based on which one has the lowest carbon footprint?

In addition, consumers are overwhelmed with so much information making it difficult to make an informed decision. Food packaging shows labels with calorie counts and ingredients lists. Other labeling indicates if products have been produced ethically, sustainably, organically and so on.

With global warming being such a major concern, we are wondering when carbon footprint information will be made available to the consumer. While the GHG Protocol has brought standardization in terms of carbon footprint calculation and reporting, it is not communicated clearly to consumers.

Let’s use the example of overseas versus locally grown tomatoes and assume that both have been transported via the same mode. The first ones are coming from further away generating more gas emissions during transit. On the other hand, they may also have been produced more efficiently resulting in less wastage and therefore less carbon emissions. Even assuming that both products’ total emissions cancelled each other out, is this where we stop counting? Some labeling initiatives have been taken, but have not been welcome very positively by businesses and consumers as the figures shown were inaccurate and partial.

The reality is that most calculations still remain estimates. More precision in calculations would involve a lot of resources that businesses aren’t willing to invest without being financially incentivized to do so. In the Companies listed on the main markets (LSX, NYSC, NASDAQ) are subject to mandatory carbon footprint reporting. In the meantime, we have to rely on voluntary reporting and initiatives mostly motivated by cost saving logics. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the latter as it is a step towards greater improvements.

Perhaps the answer to “when will carbon footprint information be made available to the consumer?” is simply, not yet!

Existing standards have been used by governments to create guidance. However, all businesses should be subject to reporting obligations and face penalties for non-compliance. As a result, we would be creating new grounds for businesses to compete on and make carbon footprint management a selling point to the consumer. These measures would drive companies to communicate standardized information whilst contributing to faster progress towards reducing our impact on the environment.