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Tesco abandons carbon-label initiative

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The largest UK supermarket chain has withdrawn from plans to carbon-label its products.

After reconsidering the amount of planning and effort to implement labels displaying a product's carbon footprint within its stores, UK supermarket Tesco had binned the idea and started to phase out products already containing the information.

Tesco, Britain's largest supermarket chain, is reported to have quashed the idea after analysis proved that calculating each product's carbon footprint would be too difficult. The scheme entailed products becoming embossed with the carbon footprint logo, and displaying information on a product's label of its individual carbon footprint.

The decision to step back from the scheme will come as a blow to the Carbon Trust, a non-profit company who were working in collaboration with Tesco to make consumers more aware of how 'green' a product is during their purchase decisions.

A spokeswoman from the Carbon Trust said that the organisation was "clearly disappointed" at the bail out:

"The annual sales value of goods carrying the label is some £3bn. We are clearly disappointed that Tesco has decided to phase out over time the use of the label on cost grounds."

Sir Terry Leahy, the chain's chief executive in 2007, said that "carbon labeling would be a revolution in green consumption" after Tesco originally signed up to place carbon information on 70,000 products. Basic amenities that most consumers purchase, such as toilet roll and milk, were due to have their footprints cataloged by the supermarket chain.

As the Guardian reported, if Tesco were to fulfill its 2007 pledge at the current rate of labeling, 125 products per year, it would take centuries -- assuming no more products were added to its ever-extending lines.

Tesco was considered one of the earliest 'green champions', but now the economic and political situation has changed, it is not surprising that larger retail powers are beginning to step back from earlier promises. Optimistic, environmentally-friendly policies are not necessarily a priority in business when profit margins begin to tighten.

Taking retailers unawares, Helen Fleming, climate change director, told The Grocer that Tesco was phasing out the labels not only because it would take too long to fulfill the pledge, but other retailers were not as supportive of the scheme as they should be.

A Tesco spokeswoman stated that the chain still wished to provide carbon information, but other methods were being considered:

"We are fully committed to carbon footprinting and helping our customers make greener choices. No final decision has yet been made, and we are always on the lookout to find even better ways to communicate the carbon impact of products in a way that informs and empowers customers.

In the meantime we are continuing to use the Carbon Trust label on a wide range of approved products and will keep asking our customers what information they would find most useful."

Tesco's targets, reported by the Carbon Trust in 2011, are thus:

  • By 2012 to halve distribution emissions of each case of goods delivered, against a baseline of 2006
  • By 2020 to halve emissions from a 2006/7 baseline portfolio of buildings
  • New stores built between 2007 and 2020 to emit half the CO2 of a 2006 new store
  • By 2050 to become a zero-carbon business

The supermarket also set itself additional targets:

  • The target of reducing the emissions of the products in their supply chain by 30 percent by 2020.
  • To find more ways to help their customers reduce their own carbon footprints by 50 percent by 2020.

To date, only approximately 500 products out of thousands have become embellished with carbon footprint information. Yet, Tesco indicated it is still dedicated to pushing towards zero emissions targets by 2020. Perhaps if a less time-consuming method is created to record carbon information, then Tesco may surprise us and rejoin a carbon labeling scheme in the future.

Image credit: John Blackmore

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Charlie Osborne

Contributing Editor

Charlie Osborne is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. In addition to SmartPlanet, she also writes for business technology website ZDNet and consumer technology site CNET. She holds a degree in medical anthropology from the University of Kent. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure