Supermarket trials carbon labels

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Supermaket chain Tesco has announced that a range of its own-brand products will carry labels showing the size of the goods' carbon footprints.

Tesco said it would label 20 items, including light bulbs and potatoes, during a two-year trial of the scheme, which is operated by the Carbon Trust.

Shoppers will be able to see how much carbon is emitted over the life of a product - from manufacture to disposal.

The store said it was introducing the labels in response to consumer demand.

"Customers tell us that it is very important to them," said David North, Tesco's community and government director. Baking a potato in an oven generates much more emissions than if you boil it in a pan with a lid on Euan Murray,Carbon Trust

"What they have said is that they want us to help them tackle climate change."

He added that information on products' environmental credentials was one of the key areas where shoppers wanted more information from retailers.

Initially, 20 products from four categories - detergents, orange juice, potatoes and light bulbs - will carry labels displaying the items' carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The Carbon Trust's scheme, launched in March 2007, is being developed in partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the British Standards Institute.

In order for products to carry the carbon reduction label, companies have to undertake a comprehensive carbon audit of the supply chains, and commit to further CO2 reductions over a two-year period.

Appetite for change

Euan Murray, general manager for the Trust's Carbon Footprinting programme, said reducing products' emissions had a huge contribution to make in tackling climate change.

"More than half of the carbon footprint of the average consumer is made up by the emissions to make, use and dispose of all the different things that we buy," he revealed.

Mr Murray added that customers also had a part to play when it came to reducing the footprint of food, such as potatoes.

"How consumers prepare them is a key determinant of the overall footprint," he told BBC News.

"We have learnt some very interesting things, such as there is a clear hierarchy when it comes to emissions from cooking.

"Baking a potato in an oven generates far more emissions than if you boil it in a pan with a lid on, which in turn generates more emissions than cooking it in a microwave."

He added that he hoped Tesco's decision to undertake the two-year trial would lead to a number of benefits.

"Tesco can work with their suppliers to reduce the footprint of potato production over time; but Tesco can also communicate to consumers, through the label and supporting information, how they can use the product in a less carbon intensive way."

'Attention focused'

Supermarkets have been criticised by environmental groups for flying food from all over the globe in order to keep their shelves stocked.

It is estimated that half of the vegetables and 95% of the fruit eaten in the UK comes from overseas, with a sizeable proportion arriving by air.

Mr North said the debate surrounding "food miles" had helped focus attention on the issue.

"It probably galvanised people to think about how we all could be more active on this sort of thing," he explained.

"We already provide an aeroplane symbol on products that have been flown in, but that is only part of the story - the carbon labels moves this debate on a step."