Growing demand for sustainable goods is driving carbon labels into the market

The world is littered with labels — markers that tell you how many calories are in a candy bar or if a tomato is organic.

Now, companies are creating labels to show consumers the environmental costs of their daily habits. Carbon labels have already cropped up on salads, sneakers and even face creams. Unilever, the maker of Dove soap and Lipton teas, has said it will add labels to all of its 70,000 products.

“We think of carbon as the new calorie,” said Prakash Arunkundrum, head of global operations and sustainability at Logitech, the technology accessories manufacturer, which recently rolled out carbon labels on several products including a gaming mouse and keyboard.
“We want carbon to be that thing that you look at and you say, ‘Okay, am I going to really need this in my life today?’ ”

The labels estimate a product’s environmental impact from cradle to grave as a carbon equivalent reflecting the greenhouse gas emissions or CO2e spent in its creation, transportation, use and end of life, as measured in grams or kilograms of carbon.

Logitech estimates that its wireless gaming mouse, for example, generates 7.84 kg of carbon emissions throughout its estimated two-year use period. By comparison, manufacturing a new Ford Focus Titanium costs about 8,000 kg CO2e, according to Mike Berners-Lee, a professor at Lancaster University and expert in carbon footprinting.

But some environmentalists are skeptical of the corporate push toward consumer labels. Calculating the carbon footprint of any given product is painstakingly complicated work. Reliable data about carbon emissions consumed in the manufacturing process is scarce, for example, leaving companies to establish their own methodologies. Carbon labels also are not regulated and require consumers to translate relatively complex scientific terms like “carbon equivalents” on the fly.