Tesco has pulled out of the Trust’s CO2 scheme, but the industry had already been seeking more effective routes to sustainability

At the previous rate of progress, on a product-by-product basis, it would have taken Tesco the equivalent of over 250 years’ research to ensure there were carbon footprint labels on all 70,000 lines it sells.

So its decision to pull out of the Carbon Trust scheme, revealed by The Grocer last week, saves it huge resources, even as it throws the Trust’s future into doubt. But where does it leave retailers’ efforts to save the planet?

When Tesco signed up to the scheme in 2007, it was hailed by then-CEO Sir Terry Leahy as a watershed. But other retailers were far more reticent about a scheme involving months of research for each product.

Tesco has since labelled 500 products and carried out research on 1,100, but now investment is being switched from individual bids for eco-credentials to conversations over potential seismic changes to global supply chains that has seen previously unthinkable alliances emerge.

“It’s only four years but the Carbon Trust process has become something of an anachronism,” says Martin Chilcott, CEO of online sustainability company 2degrees, recruited by Tesco and Asda to work with suppliers on global hotspots. “Tesco is not saying it wants to stop carbon footprinting but you can’t do it with 70,000 lines with the time it was taking.”

A BRC report this week claims UK retailers have smashed their targets to slash emissions from transport, construction and refrigeration. But BRC head of environment Bob Gordon says companies are increasingly looking at the supply chain, rather than schemes such as the Carbon Trust project. “I found out this week that the EU eco-label is only on 0.03% of goods, most of that in hotel rooms. And that been going on for 20 years,” adds Gordon.

In December Tesco joined The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), a group of global businesses, academics, governments and NGOs seeking new directions for green strategies.

Walmart, M&S, Unilever, P&G and Coca-Cola all sit on the group, formed by Walmart to create ways of tracing the sustainability of products across the globe through their lifecycle. “Consumers are increasingly aware of the green marketplace but are confused by all the green claims and myriad labels,” says TSC global director Bonnie Nixon.

A growing number of retailers are realising that passing the buck to the shopper simply won’t wash. Chris Shearlock, sustainable development manager at The Co-operative Group, says the role of retailers has become to “choice-edit” on behalf of consumers, tapping into their environmental concerns and offering products they trust.

“This does not mean labelling every product, which is hugely time-consuming and expensive,” he adds. “There’s a much broader understanding today of where carbon hotspots exist and there’s a realisation we should take action in these big important areas,” says Simon Miller, consultancy director of experts Best Foot Forward, another company working with Tesco.

As well as carbon, discussion is focusing on the environmental impact of the industry in other areas, including water, land use and farming. With that rapidly changing agenda, labelling of carbon footprints, at least in the way it has been done under the Carbon Trust model, does appear past its sell-by date.

The way forward

- Retailers are switching their messaging to marketing-led campaigns aligning their overall offering with the eco movement

- The Sustainability Consortium wants a universal measure of each product’s lifetime impact

- In the short term a development of metrics to classify whole ranges is more likely

- One idea is a traffic-light system for areas such as carbon emissions, water use and land use

Tesco responds: executive director Lucy Neville-Rolfe replies to The Grocer…

The article does not quite capture our position. We have set ourselves demanding targets: to reduce carbon emissions in the products we sell by 30% by 2020, and to find ways to help customers reduce their carbon footprints by 50% by 2020. We believe carbon labelling plays a really important role. What is correct is that the scheme we developed with the Carbon Trust, although it has many merits, has not yet been widely adopted by others.

So we are not withdrawing from carbon labelling, an important innovation. We plan to continue carbon footprinting. This process helps us understand where emissions arise and identify opportunities to reduce carbon. It also helps our customers, giving them information to help them choose the greener option. We’re proud to have footprinted over 1,100 products, more than any other UK company by sales volume. We have labelled 500 of these since 2008 and are committed to continuing our footprinting.

We want to find faster and cheaper ways to footprint and label. We are learning from the labelling we are doing and working with the Carbon Trust and other partners so we can do even more to help customers live greener lives.