Ben Tuxworth, communications director at Forum for the Future, writes a monthly column for Gristmill on sustainability in the U.K. and Europe.


British supermarket shoppers face increasingly bewildering claims about the ethical qualities of products. In one of retail giant Tesco’s stores, shoppers can opt for goods branded with the Soil Association’s organic standard, the Fairtrade Foundation’s logo, the British Farm standard, or chain-of-custody marks from the Marine Stewardship and Forest Stewardship Councils. They can linger over footprint information from the Carbon Trust or dolphin-based evaluation of the fishing methods used to catch their tuna. On another spectrum altogether, they are offered “Finest” and “Value” brands on Tesco’s own goods. And on most products they’re also expected to wade through nutritional assessments, guideline daily amounts, glycemic index counts, information on allergies, and of course, brand, quantity, and price.

As one weary consumer observed, supermarket shopping has become more like visiting a museum, with plenty to read and a clear educational agenda. Check-Out Carbon, a new report from my organization Forum for the Future, explores attempts to reduce the carbon intensity of the weekly shopping trip, and makes challenging reading for anyone hoping shoppers are taking it all in. After interviewing industry experts, conducting focus groups with consumers, and commissioning a survey of 1,000 U.K. adults, we found a surprising consensus: Despite the race to get ethically branded goods into stores, we’re all expecting too much of shopper choice.

Yes, consumers want to use their shopping power to tackle issues like climate change, but they are happy to have the really bad choices edited out for them, with 66 percent in our survey calling on retailers to remove environmentally damaging products from their shelves, and 77 percent calling on government to set higher environmental product standards. But with the real villains off the shelves, 85 percent of shoppers want clear, consistent, simple information on what to buy and how to use products. Sounds obvious, but given the fragmented state of product labeling, there’s a long way to go before they’re going to get it.

A bonfire of the labels seems pretty appealing, but for now, proliferation seems more likely. Tesco presses on with attempts to carbon-label every product in the store, with a pilot list of 20 well underway. As Sustainability Manager Katherine Sykes puts it: “Two-thirds of Tesco customers claim to understand what a carbon footprint is, and 8 out of 10 say they think about the environmental impact of what they buy. So we’re committed to getting these labels on our products in a way that’s informative and accessible, combining information with tips on reducing impact and comparisons with other products. As consumer ‘carbon literacy’ increases, we’ll be able to go further.”

This last remark holds the key. A fascinating debate has begun about choice, coercion, and timelines. If we have ten years to tackle climate change, can we honestly wait for carbon footprints and product labels to dribble out at this sort of rate, joining the melee of other information facing consumers? For some, severe choice editing on some of the high impact choices can’t wait, and government action holds the key. Others argue we should go for a single sustainability label — one that somehow combines quantitative and qualitative information about social and environmental impacts in a single “traffic light” indicator, to make an effective if blunt tool in framing choices for manufacturers, retailers, and consumers alike. Others say that the supermarket brand itself is already this indicator, and that the ethical “piece” should be subsumed within it.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, eco-labeling has been shown to work in the U.K. — energy ratings on goods and cars demonstrate how product information linked to price signals can change behavior, both in business and amongst consumers. What’s equally clear is that labeling is only one tool and won’t work on its own. As the retail sector insiders interviewed for Check-Out Carbon agreed, companies also need to have substance behind their communications and show that they are working hard not just on some impacts of some products but throughout their business.

With products and services accounting for more than half of the average Brit’s eleven-ton carbon lifestyle, apparently marginal choices about what goes in the basket aggregate quickly to significant differences. As food prices increase sharply and pressure grows on retailers to cut prices, positioning sustainability as a premium choice will be increasingly problematic. Choppy waters ahead for the eco-labelers.