Do carbon labels change consumer behaviour?

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A recent study has found that shoppers would switch to eco-friendly, lower-carbon emissions groceries, but they’d probably need to be cheaper, too.

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The Conversation

If everyday items were labelled according to the carbon emissions embodied in them, would shoppers change what they buy? And if they did, would it make a difference in the grand scheme of things?

Voluntary reductions in emissions by households do play an important role, and groceries account for a substantial proportion of the environmental burden of the average household through production, transport, and consumption. Indeed, American researchers found that individual household purchasing generates 30-40 per cent of US emissions. But despite much enthusiasm for greenhouse incentives (carbon tax, solar rebates, ceiling insulation), there has been little consideration of the likely consumer response to carbon labelling of groceries, so my students set out to gauge their response.

Their study was completed in a suburban grocery store in the NSW north coast town of Ballina during a 12-week period during mid-2008. They identified five categories of grocery items with a relatively high-turnover and wide product choice, including milk, spreadable butter, canned tomatoes, bottled water, and non-perishable pet foods. These 37 products were categorised according to their CO2 emissions generated right up to the point of sale, and labelled with one of three symbols indicating average (yellow footprint), lower than average (green footprint) and higher than average (black footprint).

The labels used in the Ballina study

The classification was strongly influenced by the energy used during transport (for example, some bottled water was freighted long distances by road) and by the energy embodied in packaging. But distance did not tell the whole story, because some water bottled abroad and shipped by sea had less embodied carbon than Australian water that had been trucked interstate. Thus “food miles” may be an over-simplistic concept, and it was this realisation that led us to use three different coloured footprints.

Labels were in place for 8 weeks and their introduction was communicated via leaflets and media coverage. The media interest was high and, in the first fortnight following the placement of the labels, gross store turnover increased by 12 per cent.

Over the eight weeks, the share of black-labelled sales fell from 32 per cent to 26 per cent, whilst the share of green-labelled sales increased from 53 per cent to 57 per cent. Further analysis revealed three different trends of customer response. When green-labelled products were also the cheapest in the category, there was a strong consumer response and sales increased by about 20 per cent. However, if the green-labelled goods were not the cheapest then the response to labelling was weaker.

Our study also found that other factors may dominate over carbon footprint and price, such as with perishable goods, where labelling appears to have little impact. For example, with fresh milk it appeared consumers had a strong preference for a particular size of package, which appeared to be more important than the footprint associated with this package.

Our research generated strong media interest, and this could have affected consumer choice, if for instance, publicity attracted strongly greenhouse-conscious people to come and shop at this store. However, the changes observed remained evident until the end of the study, even after the media attention diminished. And there was no long-term influence on store turnover, so it seems that any impact of the publicity was short-lived.

Our study provided an interesting insight into carbon labelling in a real-life context and indicated the potential for carbon labelling in a broader context. The strong response of consumers when price difference and carbon footprint are both low indicates that combining a carbon label and price incentive (via a carbon tax or emissions trading system) could be effective in encouraging sustainable consumption.

Jerry Vanclay is Dean of Science at Southern Cross University

This article was originally published on The Conversation – theconversation.edu.au. Reproduced with permission.

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2 Comments
  1. Andrew Holliday 7 years ago

    ‘When green-labelled products were also the cheapest in the category, there was a strong consumer response…However, if the green-labelled goods were not the cheapest then the response to labelling was weaker.’

    From this the report concludes that low carbon footprint and low price together can be ‘effective’. All it shows – unless there were clear examples of similar items at the same low price with differing carbon footprints (and none were cited) – is that price is the decider.

    What a stunning conclusion. Someone should tell the retail sector! I sincerely hope it didn’t take four years to analyse the results to produce this insight.

  2. Alan Baird 7 years ago

    The whole idea of a genuine price on carbon is to create winners and losers among competing products. When governments give way to business lobbyists, this ‘sorting out’ based on embodied pollution or projected pollution when the product is used is nobbled. This has caused a silent struggle between the Greens (ignoring attempts at lobbying) and Labor (only to happy to accept campaign money and lobbying, often from ex-politicians). Until lobbying and its corrupting effects are outlawed, voting in an election will be less effective than those who get a VERY receptive audience via the lobbying ‘industry’. When lobbying is combined with media and advertising industries with a similar regressive mindset, the already irresolute Labor Party deploys its well-tried ‘pre-emptive buckle’ strategy assisted from within by the likes of Marn Ferson, a member of the gumnt. Sleep on Australia…

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