Voluntary collaboration and empowered consumer choice are key to cutting our carbon footprint, says Richard Hands

There is increasing recognition that the environmental impact of mass consumption needs to be managed and reduced. But should government or industry lead the way?

Ahead of the Davos World Economic Forum, Sir Terry Leahy said that, while it is the role of government to create the right framework, it cannot match the energy and innovation of the market.

"It needs to be as much about carrot as stick The challenge is to tap into consumer power. Encourage consumers to go green, not just by saving energy but buying products with a low carbon footprint if we can do that, we will create a mass movement in green consumption."

Today many supermarkets and brands voluntarily promote the sustainable credentials of products. However, will it take more than a carrot to change purchasing behaviour to the extent Sir Terry wants?

Across the Channel, government, in partnership with various stakeholders, is using legislation to drive a more integrated approach to measuring and communicating the environmental impact of products. In July 2010, France's Grenelle legislation put forward the principles for comprehensive environmental labelling of any consumer product or service. Due to come into force from July 2012, following a 12-month test phase, the objective is to allow consumers to quickly and easily compare the environmental impact of products in the same family.

Here, on the other hand, we have tended to opt for a voluntary rather than legislative approach. The Courtauld Commitment to improve resource efficiency and reduce the carbon impacts of grocery, is an example.

While a driver for good, however, there is still room for further development within Courtauld the beverage carton industry, for one, would like to see acknowledgement of the beneficial role renewable materials have to play. And, of course, as a business-to-business commitment, Courtauld has limited scope to encourage a mass movement in green consumption.

Consumer education therefore must be the way forward, as ultimately the supply chain delivers what people want. Consumers have already shown themselves capable of a massive behavioural change without legislation, an example being the increase in recycling.

Without mass financial incentives or fines, England recently topped the 40% household waste recycling and composting target. Kerbside collection has played a big part, as it makes life easy for the consumer. In beverage cartons we've seen recycling rates rise year-on-year from a standing start four years ago, with more local authorities deciding to collect from the kerb. So how do we harness what we've learnt about recycling and apply it to motivating green purchasing as well as disposing?

Firstly, recycling has been a single-minded message. Secondly, the effort has not been down to industry alone but a combined push from government, local authorities, retailers, manufacturers, NGOs and more. Thirdly, it's been made easy for the consumer and, finally, it hasn't happened overnight.

So if we are to fulfil Sir Terry's ambition, taking recycling as our lesson, voluntary collaboration and empowered consumer choice may prove more successful, and acceptable, carrots than the legislative stick.

Richard Hands is CEO of the Alliance for Beverage Cartons & the Environment UK.