Carbon copies create confusion

Can consumers make informed decisions in the face of an abundance of carbon reduction schemes with different criteria?

The unveiling of the Carbon Trust’s carbon reduction label last week is the latest addition to a rapidly growing catalogue of carbon emissions-related branding.

But while the proliferation of carbon neutral campaigns has brought an exigent issue to the forefront of public consciousness, the onslaught of carbon reduction logos is perhaps leaving consumers somewhat confused.

According to Mike Dempsey, founding partner of CDT Design and current Master of the Faculty of Royal Designers for Industry, businesses jump on the bandwagon of a hot topic. ‘It’s superficial being seen to be concerned. If carbon labelling is anything like the food labelling fiasco, it will be an absolute disaster. When you have a mass of different messages, labels become redundant,’ he says.

Currently, there are at least four carbon reduction marques within the public domain. And with public appetite for sustainable commodities growing – according to the Centre for Sustainable Design, the global market for sustainable products and services will reach $700bn (£357bn) by 2010 – we can only expect more.

For instance, within the carbon consultancy sector, not-for-profit body Planet Positive offers its own carbon accreditation, while The Carbon Neutral Company allows its clients to use its branding to show ‘carbon neutral’ affiliation, and hence, Green credentials. The trend has taken hold within the retail sector too, with Marks & Spencer’s air miles sticker and Tesco’s announcement that it also plans to assign carbon labels to its products. The point of all this, according to Alastair Reid, managing director of Red Design, the design group behind the Planet Positive brand, is to ’empower the consumer’ so they can make an informed decision. However, Mischa Hewitt, director of awareness group the Low Carbon Trust, feels that carbon reduction labelling is now in danger of becoming a commercial battleground.

‘Branding is great in that it communicates what a company is doing, but, in reality, corporate social responsibility is not as high on the agenda as most companies would have you believe. I’d like to see carbon reduction as a core value, not added value,’ he says.

Rob Brown, director of sustainable and industrial design group Sprout Design, explains that the complexity of understanding the lifecycle of a product, as well as its carbon footprint, can also render environmental branding ineffectual.

‘There are so many carbon offsetting consultancies and methods, all presenting different means of calculation, that there’s little consistency,’ says Brown.

He feels that Government legislation, rather than a competitive market, should be driving change. ‘When we founded Sprout, we thought environmental change would come about as a consequence of legislation, but, in fact, it’s coming about as a result of the competitive market,’ he says.

Dempsey believes that the solution will come when brands stop competing and start collaborating. ‘What an incredible waste of money and resources. It would be far better for everyone to pool their knowledge and collaborate to create something that is beautifully thought out, as opposed to the public judging four or five different systems,’ he says.

So which discipline does the task of carbon labelling fall to? Is it a matter of branding or information design? Tim Fendley, creative director of Applied Information Group, sees it as a challenge for information designers. ‘If you want people to learn and then use a system, then it is a job for information design,’ he says. ‘The thing with branding is that it tries to create difference. What the consumer wants with carbon labelling is a universal system that makes it easy to compare things.’

Fendley points out that for businesses to take up such a labelling system, the scheme needs to consider commercial interests as well as public good.

He refers to the supermarkets’ refusal to adopt the Food Standards Agency traffic light system, which oversimplified the labelling for less healthy food products, putting customers off and driving sales down. ‘The challenge for designers with carbon labelling is to come up with a solution for a system that sits somewhere in between, looking at it from both sides,’ says Fendley.

Despite the sea of visual confusion, there is hope on the horizon. International organisation The Climate Group is currently researching the need for a universal standard. It plans to work with businesses, non-governmental organisations and governments to determine an international standard on carbon neutrality and collaborate if necessary.

In the meantime, whatever the solution, the design sector should play a major role as awareness-builder, communicator and innovator.

• Carbon Trust label is being trialled by Walkers, Boots and Innocent Drinks
• Planet Positive – construction businesses including Barrett, Corus Steel and Prologis have signed up for accreditation
• Marks & Spencer pledges to become carbon neutral by 2012 and introduces an air mile sticker
• Tesco announces plan to introduce carbon labelling for all of its products
• The Climate Group is currently conducting research into an international standard

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  • Mike November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This is an interesting problem that I was thinking about last night after watching the money programme.
    I think there is a vital problem with the visual communication of this labeling system, and that lies in the fact that the average consumer cannot relate to seemingly arbitrary quantities of carbon dioxide. No-one really knows how much 75 grams of CO2 is or what it means. They need to ditch this method and replace it with something consumers can relate to.
    I’m kind of using this problem as the basis of a project that I plan to carry out over the next few weeks, in order to my own solution.
    I have begun to outline this at my blog:
    any comments would be much appreciated

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