Feature Report: Everyday Energy

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On the Shelf: Carbon and Environmental Labeling

Consumer goods are also starting to carry labels indicating their carbon footprint. In France, the concept is still in the trial phase for now, but the ultimate goal is to have an environmental label for each sector, based on several criteria. The European Union is also working on an eco-label for use in all E.U. countries.

Information on the energy cost of products is displayed in supermarket aisles. © THINKSTOCK

After introducing measures to raise consumers’ awareness of the carbon footprintThe carbon footprint (also known as greenhouse gas inventory) of a good or service measures the impact human activities have on the environment ... when they buy a car (See Close-Up: "In Our Daily Lives: Everyday Energy-Saving Tips") or choose a new home (See Close-Up: "More Environmentally Friendly Transportation"), the French government is now working to add the “greenhouse factor” to the criteria for purchasing consumer goods.1

As part of France’s Grenelle Environmental program, 168 companies participated in a consumer goods carbon labeling trial between July 2011 and July 2012. Feedback from the trial was sent to the French Parliament with a view to gradually extending environmental labeling to all products and services over the long term.2

Taking Into Account the Product’s Entire Life Cycle

To integrate the “greenhouse factor” into their choices, consumers need to know the carbon footprint of the various goods and services available.

Since the 1990s, it has generally been agreed that a product's carbon footprint should take into account every stage in its life cycle. The life cycle assessment (life cycle assessment (lca) A standardized method used to assess the environmental aspects and potential impacts of a product...) of a product or service must therefore include the extraction of the raw materials used to make it, its production, packaging, distribution, use and end-of-life recyclingAny waste treatment process that uses materials from identical or similar end-of-life products or manufacturing waste to produce new products. or disposal.

This approach can have some surprising results. Spanish tomatoes sold in the United Kingdom may seem energy-intensiveDescribes a building, mode of transportation or industrial process that uses large amounts of energy. because they have been transported by truck. However, tomatoes produced locally may actually have a bigger carbon footprint if they have been grown in greenhouses that need to be heated because of the local climate. Similarly, using the LCA approach, a pot of yogurt will have a different carbon footprint depending on whether the container is made of glass or plastic (See sidebar).

Rethinking Food Packaging to Reduce Waste

Although plastic packaging often suffers from a negative image in the supermarket, it actually offers numerous advantages in terms of energy consumption when the entire product life cycle is taken into account.

Transportation: Plastic packaging is much lighter than glass, which means that less fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... is needed to deliver goods to the consumer. It also takes up less space, enabling higher vehicle fill rates. In Europe, 10 million tons of fuel is avoided each year thanks to plastic packaging.

Preservation: Plastic packaging is an effective way of preserving food. A cucumber wrapped in plastic film keeps for 11 days longer than an unpackaged cucumber. In the supermarket, loose fruit and vegetables generate 26% more waste than products prepackaged in plastic.

Recycling: Provided that consumers dispose of it thoughtfully, plastic packaging reduces the amount of waste to be recycled or incinerated after the product has been consumed.

Adopting an Approach Based on Several Criteria

Feedback from the French trial suggests that a product's carbon footprint should not be the only factor taken into account. Other criteria to be considered include resource depletionIn the oil industry, depletion corresponds to the gradual decline in production from an oil or gas well..., potential pollution of air, water or soil, and impact on biodiversityRefers to the natural diversity of living organisms. It can be measured through the study of species, genes and ecosystems.. Obviously, this would be an environmental label, rather than a carbon label. The trial’s coordinators provided the examples of a laundry detergent or an agricultural product, which, in addition to contributing to climate change, may also have an impact on water quality. Another potential factor is the amount of waste produced and released into the environment. Improving performance in one area should not lower it in another.

Given the number and complexity of the criteria to be taken into account, it is difficult to determine the most effective way of getting the information to consumers so that they can make an informed choice. Should the information be provided on a label directly on the product or on the shelf next to its price, on the customer’s receipt, on posters around the store, or perhaps via a website?

An environmental label covers a broader scope than a carbon label, taking into account such factors as impact on water, air and soil quality.

Across the European Union

Increased circulation of goods and services throughout the “single market” has prompted the European Union to conduct its own consumer goods labeling trial, for a three-year period. Calls for proposals were launched in May 2013 and January 2014 to identify common standards and determine appropriate verification and consumer communication methods.

It is also necessary to coordinate the initiatives being undertaken in various member countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, major outlets have been using this type of label for several years. Harmonizing the method for calculating a product’s impact on the climate, or more generally on the environment, can be very complex.

In France, standardized calculation tools have therefore been developed:



(1) Ministère de l'écologie, du développement durable et de l'énergie (French only)

(2) Ministère de l'écologie, du développement durable et de l'énergie (French only)