Carbon Labelling Guide
Table of Contents
We created this guide to help businesses understand the process, costs and benefits of carbon labelling. The easier and more transparent we make this process for brands, the more brands will carbon label and help consumers make #clevercarbondecisions.
Disclosure and disclaimer: clever carbon does not have any financial incentives associated with this guide. We are purely creating the guide to accelerate the carbon labelling movement! A sustainable and transparent society with accountable goods and services is our ultimate goal! The content in this guide was created through research and interviews. If you have feedback or suggestions, feel free to contact us through the contact form!
Example of a carbon label: carbon footprint of a roll of toilet paper by Acme. Note that carbon labels can apply across any product or service!
What is carbon footprint?
Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that is emitted when we burn fossil fuels like coal or natural gas. Carbon dioxide traps heat on our planet, much like how a greenhouse traps heat, thereby causing global temperatures to rise (among other side effects). Carbon footprint is a measure of the amount of carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned, and has long been used as a measure of environmental impact. The lower the carbon footprint, the better.
What most people don’t realize is that everyone has a carbon footprint, not just governments and manufacturers. The banana you had for breakfast, the time you spent on the treadmill, or the hot shower you took after your workout, everything you do has a carbon footprint. It’s neither good nor bad, just a fact. If you don’t know your carbon footprint, try our 2 min quiz!
What are carbon labels?
Similar to a nutritional label, a carbon label helps consumers understand the impact of the item they are purchasing or consuming. In the case of a carbon label, the label contains the carbon footprint of the product (a number, ex. 0.48 kg CO2) and helps consumers understand the impact of the product on the environment. The carbon footprint of the item is calculated by a consultant that is familiar with product carbon footprint quantification standards.
Let’s walk through a sample carbon footprint label for a t-shirt!
- Materials: the carbon footprint, or emissions, of sourcing the cotton, dyes, labels, for the t-shirt. This also includes packaging materials.
- Manufacturing: the emissions released in the factory to manufacture and package the t-shirt. This could be the electricity needed to power the machines and even the lights in the building.
- Transportation: the emissions resulting from shipping the raw materials to the warehouse, and the finished product to the retailer or wholesaler.
- Product usage: the emissions from washing and drying or ironing the t-shirt (as an example)
- Disposal: these emissions depend on how the item is disposed. If it’s upcycled, this would refer to the emissions from the equipment that clean and repurpose the shirt. In many cases, it refers to the emissions related to the landfill.
Note: each manufacturer will likely have a different carbon footprint, even though the item may be the same (i.e. t-shirt). This is because each company has different suppliers and different raw materials. Each supplier has different emissions. Additionally, materials like packaging, etc, are typically different between brands and emissions from packaging are incorporated into the carbon footprint label. Carbon labels can apply to any product or service from apparel (t-shirt, shoes, pants, etc), cosmetics, a meal at a fast food restaurant, and more! A carbon lifecycle assessment is performed by a consultant and the data is then used in the carbon label.
Why do consumers want carbon labels?
Thanks to Foodsteps for sharing this data with us!
When consumers make purchasing decisions, they use many inputs from quality, price, style, and taste and nutritional information when it comes to food. As consumers increasingly understand the impacts of consumption on our planet, the trend is for consumers to find ways to better understand and ultimately lower their impact.
Carbon footprint labels help consumers quantify the environmental impact of their purchase decisions. Companies like Oatly, Allbirds, Pantys, and TENZING are great examples of hip brands that have started carbon labelling. Large organizations like Unilever have also pledged to carbon label all products.
Why should my brand carbon label?
We’re glad you asked and we have a few good reasons!
- Consumers are starting to care (a lot) about sustainability and impact! Carbon labels help consumers identify brands that are eco-minded, transparent, and don’t shy away from being accountable.
- Consumers would like to measure their own impact! Carbon labels help consumers quantify their impact, just like nutrition labels help quantify food intake.
- Brands that adopt carbon labelling are helping to create more transparency and accountability. Win-win!
- Marketing buzz opportunity. This is a great way to drum up more eyes outside of a product launch or event!
- We predict a future that includes mandatory carbon labelling enforced by policy, so the earlier you start, the better!
How to Carbon Label
First and foremost, you’ll need a project manager that will coordinate with the consultant who will do the assessment and calculations and also act as the quarterback for internal teammates. The project manager will typically be a champion for the initiative as well.
Main tasks of the project manager:
- -Liaising with consultant
- -Help gather data from suppliers either directly, or partnering someone from procurement or operations
- -Coordinating with marketing for launch messaging and design of label and packaging
- -Coordinate launch activities with marketing
- -Coordinate designing of new label and packaging
- -Coordinate web updates (usually companies like to have a sustainability page or update their product page to display the label)
- -Coordinate business case (not always done)
Cross-department involvement (can be identified further down the project):
Operations and procurement: help contact suppliers and gather data that is needed for calculations for the carbon lifecycle assessment (see section 3 for more information on data collection)
Marketing: coordinates messaging, campaigns, and timing around launch of the label. This is usually a great way to create more buzz for your brand.
Design: creates a label that will go on the packaging and website.
Web developer: Help add new launch and label content to appropriate web assets.
CEO/Leadership: In many cases, the CEO or someone in senior leadership is a champion of the project and approves of the budget for hiring the consulting company, using marketing and design resources for creating the label launch of the label from a marketing perspective, and manufacturing (printing new packaging with the labels).
There are companies and independent consultants that provide these services. When the assessment is complete, you’ll have the carbon footprint per product and the breakdown (ex. Materials, transportation, etc) that you can add to the label. Your consultant should be familiar with internationally recognized standards: GHG Protocol Product Standard, PAS2050, and ISO14067. Be sure to ask.
Some companies/consultants we know of:
- Carbon Trust | United Kingdom
- Carbon Cloud | Sweden
- C-Free | United Kingdom
- Carbon Choice | United Kingdom
- Foodsteps | United Kingdom
- Green Story | Canada
- My Emissions | United Kingdom
- W2Rsolutions | Canada
- WayCarbon | Brazil
If you know of a company that isn’t on our list, please reach out: email@example.com
To quantify the product carbon footprint, companies will typically need to reach out to suppliers to gather data, especially if they don’t own most aspects of their supply chain and manufacturing.
For a t-shirt, examples of the data that would be needed:
- -Carbon emissions from growing and picking cotton (approximate amount of fuel required for machinery to grow, maintain, and harvest cotton (depends on weight of cotton), electricity for warehouse storage or post harvest processing)
- -Transportation of cotton from farm to warehouse (fuel for the distanced the cotton travelled, any packaging related emissions)
- -Warehouse electricity used to process the cotton from raw material to t-shirt
- -Machinery and materials used to package the t-shirt
- -Transportation of t-shirt from warehouse to reseller
- -Average emissions when using the t-shirt (electricity used for washing, ironing, etc)
- -Disposable emissions (average emissions when a t-shirt is exposed)
While there are regulations around how the product carbon footprint quantification is performed, there is currently little to no regulation on the information included on carbon labels at the time of this publication (April 2021). A lot of companies like to have fun with it and make it their own!
Typically, the information included is the carbon footprint of:
- Product use (ex. Electricity from washing a t-shirt or using a hair dryer)
The categories above embody all data in what is referred to as cradle to grave calculation because it incorporates emissions for product use and disposable/end of life. Some carbon labels are cradle to gate which only include the emissions up until it’s sold, thereby emitting emissions from product use and disposal. We recommend carbon labels that include cradle to grave figures. A few samples of carbon labels can be found here:Your consultant will likely have recommendations on what to include.
You may also consider including a QR code as part of the label and packaging that includes language to let the consumer know that the most up to date information can be found at the URL indicated by the QR code. Sometimes things may change abruptly and the QR code can serve as a way to show the most recent information.
After the data and label are complete, the downstream activities begin.
If your company manufactures goods, the label should be included on the packaging. As with all things packaging, you’ll likely need to run a few samples and tests to ensure that the label is visible.
This stage also includes any updates you may want to make to your website or other external facing assets.
At the moment, regulation mainly exists in the form of product carbon footprint quantification standards: GHG Protocol, PAS2050, Product Standard or ISO14067
- Data gathering: from 4 to 8 weeks (This is usually the longest step and really depends on the number of third parties you work with and their responsiveness. In some cases, suppliers will need a certificate that they use renewable energy and if you’re the first customer to ask for it, it may take some time to gather, but is well worth the wait as renewable energy reduces the product carbon footprint!)
- Calculations: 3 to 6 weeks (depends on the consultant)
- Label and Package Design: 2 to 4 weeks
- Manufacture: Varies
- Consultants have estimates or standards for a lot of the data and ways to extrapolate, so if you’re missing some data, that’s fine
This depends on your industry, but sometimes it’s hard to get the exact
manufacturing emissions because oftentimes a warehouse is manufacturing
products for other companies as well. It can also be challenging to trace
agriculture items down to the farmer to collect the necessary data
Usually companies review the data annually and update the labels and
packaging accordingly. If something significant has changed in less than a years time, having a QR
code on the label and packaging can be helpful in helping customers have
the most up to date information.
It’s not uncommon for companies to perform analysis annually, but it’s up to
your company. If any major changes are made to your supply chain or
manufacturing process, an update would be recommended.
No, but a lot of companies choose to do this because one of the goals is to
be transparent. For most companies, the life cycle assessment is
accompanied with a report. Some companies choose to share this publicly.
This depends if you manufacture the same product and ship it to different
countries, or if you manufacture in multiple locations. Your consultant will
advise you on the best path forward.
- Chatelaine | What are carbon labels?
- Fast Company | Brands are starting to add carbon labels to their packaging
- Forbes | Carbon labels are finally coming to the food and beverage industry
Carbon footprint calculations
- PAS 2050 Product Carbon Footprint Standards
Product Carbon Footprint
Special thanks to the following people for volunteering their time and knowledge to help us with this guide: Emily Gander | TENZING, Eddie Fitzgerald-Barron | C-Free, Jonathan Gilmour | Carbon Choice and Lila Mehta | Foodsteps for their assistance in creating this guide.
Disclosure and disclaimer: clever carbon does not have any financial incentives associated with this guide. We are purely creating the guide to accelerate the carbon labelling movement! A sustainable and transparent society with accountable goods and services is our ultimate goal! The content in this guide was created through research and interviews. If you have feedback or suggestions, feel free to contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org