Labeling Ad Nauseum

The current issue of The Economist has an interesting short commentary on a new move to include additional information — about products’ “carbon footprints” — on product labels: Food’s carbon footprint [Subscription required] (or see p. 84 of the print edition)

WOULD you like a footprint on your food? Labels already show fat, salt and sugar content, among other things. But now several British food companies and retailers plan to add carbon footprint labels showing the quantity (in grams) of carbon-dioxide emissions associated with making and transporting foods and other goods.…

Regular readers will know I’ve expressed a dim view of labeling as a way of dealing with controversy over GM foods. The Economist story reminds us that there are a whole lot of things consumers might wish to know (for all kinds of reasons, ethical and otherwise) about the goods they buy. But the article also points out that, even where companies see the value in labeling, there are serious methodological and logistical problems. Not that carbon-footprint labeling isn’t kind of a neat idea, but we should think about whether such efforts are generalizable.

So, let’s imagine, hypothetically, that you want to buy coffee beans that are:

  • shade grown
  • traded fairly
  • organic
  • non-GM
  • low-carbon footprint

You might be able to get just what you want by buying your coffee at just the right coffee shop. But what if you have similarly exacting standards when it comes to buying apples, bread, olive oil, electronics, and jeans? How many companies have the supply-chain management systems adequate to provide (in priciple) detailed information about a whole range of products to large numbers of consumers? There’s only one that I can think of. Uh-oh.

1 comment so far

  1. […] ingredients, nutritional characteristics) there are now calls for labelling nation of origin, carbon footprint, water footprint, genetic content, and so on. The list seems endless, and is […]


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