Published on: February 19, 2008An eight thousand word piece in The New Yorker entitled “Big Foot” looks at the morality and science of measuring carbon emissions, begins like this:
“A little more than a year ago, Sir Terry Leahy, who is the chief executive of the Tesco chain of supermarkets, Britain’s largest retailer, delivered a speech to a group called the Forum for the Future, about the implications of climate change. Leahy had never before addressed the issue in public, but his remarks left little doubt that he recognized the magnitude of the problem. “I am not a scientist,” he said. “But I listen when the scientists say that, if we fail to mitigate climate change, the environmental, social, and economic consequences will be stark and severe. . . . There comes a moment when it is clear what you must do. I am determined that Tesco should be a leader in helping to create a low-carbon economy. In saying this, I do not underestimate the task. It is to take an economy where human comfort, activity, and growth are inextricably linked with emitting carbon and to transform it into one which can only thrive without depending on carbon. This is a monumental challenge. It requires a revolution in technology and a revolution in thinking. We are going to have to rethink the way we live and work.”
According to The New Yorker, “Few corporations could have a more visible or forceful—impact on the lives of their customers. In his speech, Leahy, who is fifty-two, laid out a series of measures that he hoped would ignite ‘a revolution in green consumption.’ He announced that Tesco would cut its energy use in half by 2010, drastically limit the number of products it transports by air, and place airplane symbols on the packaging of those which it does. More important, in an effort to help consumers understand the environmental impact of the choices they make every day, he told the forum that Tesco would develop a system of carbon labels and put them on each of its seventy thousand products. ‘Customers want us to develop ways to take complicated carbon calculations and present them simply,’ he said. ‘We will therefore begin the search for a universally accepted and commonly understood measure of the carbon footprint of every product we sell - looking at its complete life cycle, from production through distribution to consumption. It will enable us to label all our products so that customers can compare their carbon footprint as easily as they can currently compare their price or their nutritional profile.”
The New Yorker notes that “greenhouse-gas emissions have risen rapidly in the past two centuries, and levels today are higher than at any time in at least the past six hundred and fifty thousand years. In 1995, each of the six billion people on earth was responsible, on average, for one ton of carbon emissions. Oceans and forests can absorb about half that amount. Although specific estimates vary, scientists and policy officials increasingly agree that allowing emissions to continue at the current rate would induce dramatic changes in the global climate system. To avoid the most catastrophic effects of those changes, we will have to hold emissions steady in the next decade, then reduce them by at least sixty to eighty per cent by the middle of the century. (A delay of just ten years in stopping the increase would require double the reductions.) Yet, even if all carbon emissions stopped today, the earth would continue to warm for at least another century. Facts like these have transformed carbon dioxide into a strange but powerful new currency, difficult to evaluate yet impossible to ignore.
“A person’s carbon footprint is simply a measure of his contribution to global warming. (CO2 is the best known of the gases that trap heat in the atmosphere, but others including water vapor, methane, and nitrous oxide also play a role.) Virtually every human activity - from watching television to buying a quart of milk - has some carbon cost associated with it. We all consume electricity generated by burning fossil fuels; most people rely on petroleum for transportation and heat. Emissions from those activities are not hard to quantify. Watching a plasma television for three hours every day contributes two hundred and fifty kilograms of carbon to the atmosphere each year; an LCD television is responsible for less than half that number. Yet the calculations required to assess the full environmental impact of how we live can be dazzlingly complex. To sum them up on a label will not be easy. Should the carbon label on a jar of peanut butter include the emissions caused by the fertilizer, calcium, and potassium applied to the original crop of peanuts? What about the energy used to boil the peanuts once they have been harvested, or to mold the jar and print the labels? Seen this way, carbon costs multiply rapidly … As a source of global warming, the food we eat—and how we eat it—is no more significant than the way we make clothes or travel or heat our homes and offices. It certainly doesn’t compare to the impact made by tens of thousands of factories scattered throughout the world. Yet food carries enormous symbolic power, so the concept of ‘food miles’ - the distance a product travels from the farm to your home - is often used as a kind of shorthand to talk about climate change in general.”
At the same time, things are not that simple. “In his speech last year, Sir Terry Leahy promised to limit to less than one per cent the products that Tesco imports by air. In the United States, many similar efforts are under way. Yet the relationship between food miles and their carbon footprint is not nearly as clear as it might seem. That is often true even when the environmental impact of shipping goods by air is taken into consideration. ‘People should stop talking about food miles,’ Adrian Williams told me. ‘It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic.’ Williams is an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University, in England. He has been commissioned by the British government to analyze the relative environmental impacts of a number of foods. ‘The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby - well, it’s just idiotic,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.’ Williams pointed out that when people talk about global warming they usually speak only about carbon dioxide. Making milk or meat contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere than building a house or making a washing machine. But the animals produce methane and nitrous oxide, and those are greenhouse gases, too. ‘This is not an equation like the number of calories or even the cost of a product,’ he said. ‘There is no one number that works’.”
- KC's View:
- This is a fascinating and provocative article by the always reliable New Yorker that gives a sense of the complexity of the issue. (You should go out and pick up a copy of the magazine…ASAP.)
It seems to me that even as retailers attempt to pick their way through this environmental minefield, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that consumers want to do something, want to do the right thing…even if they are not sure what to do.
I think that this actually creates an opportunity, as retailers can forge a bond with their shoppers in a kind of “we’re all in this together” fashion. Explain the options, explain the choices, and maybe even develop consumer advisory groups that can help the retailer make intelligent and appropriate choices.
It could be more than a remarkable marketing opportunity. It could be a chance to develop a concrete sense of community between the shopper and the retailer.
By the way, it is worth noting that the “buy local” movement isn’t just driven by the issue of carbon emissions. Reuters reports that Lucy Neville-Rolfe, corporate and legal affairs director, told the National Farmers Union annual conference yesterday that Tesco plans to double its sale of local products in the UK by 2011.
"This year, we expect to sell 400 million pounds ($779.8 million) of local products in the UK. By 2011, we plan to sell one billion pounds worth. That target is perfectly achievable," she said, noting that the goal is linked to shoppers’ demands for fresher products that also contribute to the UK economy.