Is carbon counting the new calorie counting?

Nov 10, 2020

GDR’s Charlie Lloyd explores how carbon emissions are becoming a big consideration for consumers and a key differentiator for brands

Since 2013 when the traffic light scheme was introduced in the UK, it has become second nature for consumers to take a quick glance at the nutritional information on the front of food and drink products. The system provides a clear visual to the consumer about the sugar, fat and salt content of the product, and too much red on the label is likely to make us think twice about what we buy.

Since then, a growing awareness amongst consumers about the impact of their consumption on the planet has put the contents of our shopping under the spotlight once again. It began with packaging; single-use plastic quickly became public enemy number one, and while there’s still a long way to go to eradicate it completely, we see so many examples every single week – such as Asda’s new sustainability store in Leeds – that show us that we’re heading in the right direction in terms of transitioning towards refillable containers and more eco-friendly materials.

Asda Sustainability Store


Now however, we’re starting to see the conversation between brands and consumers around sustainability going further, beyond the plastic that consumers can see and touch, to the hidden environmental costs of every step of the product’s lifecycle. Brands are becoming more transparent about their overall carbon footprints across manufacturing, marketing and the supply chain, pointing to a future where the carbon that goes into a donut might be as much a consideration for consumers as its saturated fat content.


Brands taking the early lead on carbon labelling

Just Salad Climatarian Menu


In June this year, Unilever made global headlines when the CPG giant announced it was rolling out carbon labelling onto every one of its 70,000 products as part of its commitment to bring the net emissions of its operations down to zero by 2039.

The labelling might not seem to actively lower those emissions on their own, but by stamping each product with its carbon footprint, Unilever is laying all its cards on the table with consumers and upping the ante with its rivals, challenging them to compete. Similarly, US-based restaurant chain Just Salad launched its ‘nutrition label for the Earth’, meaning that from now on each of its options will display their carbon emissions.

It’s one thing giving consumers the data, but brands and retailers will also need to educate their customers about what those numbers mean so that they can put them into context in order to make informed buying decisions. This was the objective of Swedish grocer Felix in October, when it opened a pop-up in which everything for sale was priced according to its carbon emissions. Shoppers were given currency to spend in the pop-up with value linked to CO2 emissions rather than Euros and were challenged to do their weekly shop within a budget of 18.9kg. Felix too has announced plans to roll out carbon labelling on its products across its stores.



As we’ve seen suggested by Just Salad’s labels, carbon competition is not going to be a battle confined to the supermarket. Swedish fashion label Asket has calculated the environmental cost of some of its most popular items and prints these for the customer on an ‘Impact Receipt’ in which carbon emissions, water and energy are broken down across each stage of the production process. The brand has given itself a deadline of 2021 by which it has promised to provide Impact Receipts for its full range.

Another clothing brand has shined a light on the environmental impact of its website, encouraging consumers to think about how even the way that products are marketed carries with it a carbon cost. Organic Basics has set up an alternate version of its website with a smaller carbon footprint. The low-carbon website has limited features and a notably worse user experience – users must request to see images of the photos of each product rather than the site loading them automatically – but it is precisely because of its limitations that it is so effective at presenting to consumers the hidden environmental costs of online shopping.

Swedish Fintech startup Doconomy demonstrates that even in the world of finance, businesses are starting to identify opportunities in the burgeoning world of carbon competition. Its credit card uses patented technology to calculate the environmental impact of its customers’ purchases and allows them to set daily, weekly or monthly carbon limits. Once those limits are reached, the card will be declined.


Positive negativity: the rise of the ‘carbon negative’ product

Nadar Gin


While these brands have been calculating the carbon cost of existing products, others have been bringing new ones to market that they claim actually take more carbon out of the atmosphere than they emit.

Each and Every is a natural deodorant brand which has created ‘the world’s first carbon negative deodorant packaging’. The tubes are made from sugarcane rather than plastic, and as sugarcane is a plant, it removes CO2 from the air as it grows. Nàdar, a ‘climate positive’ gin, phrases its proposition differently but stakes its claim along similar lines. Its gin is made from peas, and waste from the production process is used to create animal feed, contributing to a carbon footprint of -1.54kg CO2e per bottle.

One of GDR’s favourite case studies from 2019 was Sheep Inc., a truly innovative fashion start-up from New Zealand billing itself as a ‘carbon negative fashion brand’. Sheep Inc. makes Merino wool sweaters, and each sweater comes with a tag containing NFC and QR technology that provides a detailed creation journey and carbon footprint information. (What we particularly loved was that each customer is assigned a sheep that they receive regular updates about, reminding them that their sweater came from a living animal.)

New products promising carbon negativity are coming thick and fast – the latest we’ve added to the GDR Insight platform is Aether, a company that has engineered another ‘world first’ – this time by making diamonds from carbon removed from the atmosphere.


Carbon reduction: a solid starting point

The Impact Receipt from Asket


It’s worth noting that the use of the term ‘carbon negative’ has been challenged by some, who point to the fact that many of these processes are yet to be tested at scale – and indeed, carbon negative products launched so far tend to come from relatively small-scale producers.

As carbon competition heats up, achieving carbon negativity should surely be the ultimate objective for most brands. But just as brands have been torn down in the past for ‘greenwashing’ when their environmental claims haven’t stood up to scrutiny, they are going to need to have full confidence in their claims to avoid backlashes further down the line.

Carbon negativity can only genuinely be delivered when every single part of the process has been taken into account. For major brands producing at scale, incremental improvements driven by transparency provide a safer and more realistic starting point, so in that sense, it’s time for others to follow Unilever’s lead.

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