ESG: Carbon Footprint Labels – Helpful or Green Washing?

Major Fortune 100 and 500 companies and others continue to focus on their ESG efforts in various forms and arenas, including the continued evolution of carbon emissions disclosures on various products.

As noted by Saabira Chaudhuri in her Wall Street Journal column, consumers, investors, Boards and regulators are becoming more and more interested in emission levels in the context of growing concerns over climate change and its impact. 

Unilever PLC – intends to introduce carbon footprint details on 70,000 of its products, given that sales of sustainable products are growing faster than their lines of non-sustainable products.  They are currently working on obtaining direct information about their carbon footprint for each ingredient supplier that provides products that are used in Unilever products.

Colgate- Palmolive – continues to work with their supply chain providers of various ingredients that are inputting into their products in an effort to avoid allowing estimates of amounts of impact in favor or real numbers.  Colgate continues to work on ways to measure and verify their footprint, and to require that their supply chain actually measure and verify these impacts.

Quorn/Monde Nissin Corp – began displaying carbon-dioxide/kilogram on-package carbon footprint details in 2020 for certain of their meatless products.

Oatly AB, Upfield Holdings BV and Just Salad brands have also started listing carbon emissions figures on both their packaging and menus.

Logitech International began listing carbon emissions figures on their computer keyboard products.

Having labelled and provided on line environmental impact numbers for its Garnier hair products already, L’Oréal SA announced it will be adding carbon labels for all of its “rinse off” products, including shampoos, in 2022.

To date, there is no market based, agreed upon, uniform way to report or measure these various GhG impacts but, each of the above mentioned companies, have attempted to outline their methodologies and have given their rationales on how they measure and report – an excellent first step.  As others either desire to join them or feel the pressure from consumers, their Board and/or stakeholders to measure and report as well, one can only hope that a quasi uniform methodology for monitoring, measuring and reporting is agreed upon and utilized so that consumers can measure apples to apples rather than apples to oranges or kilograms to pounds.

The Triple Bottom Line: While personally I am a big fan of labeling (whether this be nutrition or calories on a menu or ingredients in a chemical mixture to enable the consumer to review the information and make an informed decision), and, in my view, the growing use of “carbon labeling” represents a good step in the right direction to enable better, more informed consumer choices, I am just not so sure that everyone’s motivation and nomenclature is the same when using phrases like “net-zero”, “carbon emissions” and “greenhouse gas impact”.  As such, the reported results will not be comparable as between products, at least not yet.  Again, I am very much in favor of solid attempts by various organizations to self report their impacts, I just look forward to the day when everyone is measuring outcome in a similar fashion so that real comparisons by brand and product will be possible, rather than merely smart marketing by some with a lack of a verifiable real methodology for measuring and reporting.  As such, I will put “carbon labeling” in the “growing in interest” category, likely to become more and more real and relevant as time and measurement systems are put in place during 2021 and 2022 and, very likely that regulators like the EU, the SEC or trade associations like the SASB continue to push for more required and verifiable disclosure. As such, an area to continue to pay attention to and keep attuned to the market dynamics that continue to push for more and better information.

Duane Morris has an active ESG and Sustainability Team to help organizations and individuals plan, respond to, and execute on Sustainability and ESG planning and initiatives within their own space. We would be happy to discussion your proposed project with you. Contact your Duane Morris attorney for more information.

If you have any questions about this post, please contact Brad A. Molotsky (bamolotsky@duanemorris.com), Christiane Schuman Campbell, Darrick Mix, Dominica Anderson, Nanette Heide, David Amerikaner or the attorney in the firm with whom you are regularly in contact.