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Carbon Labeling: Coming to Your Store Shelves Soon

Various salads with text overlays indicating the amount of carbon that was created in the manufacturing process.
Source: Just Salad

Would you think differently about drinking a Coca-Cola if you knew how much that liter of soda affected the environment? Might you choose a soft drink from a competitor if you understood that it had less of an impact on the environment than Coke?

In a summer of dramatic weather extremes created by climate change, where the chemical element carbon increasingly penetrates the headlines and our consciousness – from carbon sequestration to carbon credits – one of the big changes we see coming to a store near you is “carbon labeling.”

What is Carbon Labeling?

The back of a food package that indicates the carbon footprint of the full lifecycle of the product is 0.16 KG per serving.
Source: Quorn

In the same way you read the ingredients label of packaged food, eyeing key numbers for, say, sodium or sugar, you will now see the carbon impacts of the product clearly marked on the product label. Think of it as calorie counting, but for climate change and for our planet. How many calories do you want to consume now translates into how much carbon do you want to release into the environment? The hope being, of course, is that you will make purchasing decisions based on this consideration.

Knowledge Is Power

The idea isn’t new, as this video from ten years ago shows. But it’s gaining momentum with the climate crisis and coming soon to a store near you.

We think it’s a huge advancement for the environment through the forces of both push and pull demand. It will pull demand along for less carbon intensive products as consumers gain more knowledge to use in their purchasing decisions, and because of this it will push companies to minimize the carbon released in the production of their products. This is gaining traction with some very big brands. Here are some very recent data points, as well as some cool tools, that support this trend prediction.

The Swedes Have It

The Oatly milk carton indicates the climate footprint is 0.41 KG.
Source: Oatly

It seems as if Sweden is a hotbed for the carbon labeling movement. Oatly, the Swedish maker of alternative dairy products, introduced carbon labeling on its oat-based milk drinks in 2019. Fellow Swedish food company Felix has opened a climate-awareness grocery store that bases the prices of products on their carbon footprints. And Doconomy, an impact tech startup there, has created the 2030 Calculator to simplify the process for calculating a product’s carbon footprint.

And So Do The Kiwis

Last year, B Corp Allbirds began labeling each of the new shoes it produces with its associated carbon footprint, showing the CO2 required to produce it. The average carbon footprint of a pair of Allbirds shoes is 7.6 CO2e – CO2e being the measurement of carbon emissions equivalents. For instance, 7.6 CO2e is the equivalent of driving 19 miles in a car, doing 5 loads of laundry in a clothes dryer, or producing 22 chocolate bars1. And the CO2e of the average sneaker is 12.5, which shows that Allbirds sneakers contribute nearly 40% fewer emissions into the atmosphere.

What’s perhaps most impressive is that New Zealand-based Allbirds developed its own life-cycle assessment tool that it is open-sourcing to everyone in the fashion industry, competitors included, in order to help others in the fight against climate change. There must be a hefty dose of cooperation in the Kiwi DNA as Allbirds is also working on a FUTURECRAFT.FOOTPRINT climate collab with adidas where the two companies intend to create a pair of running shoes with the world’s lowest carbon footprint.

One Of The World’s Largest Companies Is Joining The Movement

Unilever, one of the world’s largest consumer packaged goods companies and maker of brands such as Hellman’s mayonnaise and Dove soap, recently announced it will begin introducing carbon product labels as well. It is currently measuring the carbon footprint for approximately 40% of its products, and carbon labels will begin showing up on some of its products in Europe and North America by the end of this year.

Here in the U.S., Just Salad became the first restaurant chain to label the carbon of every offering on its menu, and beauty brand company Cocokind added sustainable fact panels to the packaging of its line of conscious skincare products, including CO2e calculations.

People Have The Power

Awareness and education, yes, but question: Would you buy cosmetics from Cocokind or shoes from Allbirds if you knew their production processes resulted in fewer carbon emissions than similar offerings without the carbon labeling?

Which brings us back to Coca-Cola. The company says that a liter of Coca-Cola creates 346 grams of carbon dioxide emissions. And while Coca-Cola has an extensive Carbon Accounting Manual for its operations and products, you won’t find that number on a bottle at shelf level in a store. And that’s something we’d like to see change.