While they all applaud the new Carbon Trust labelling scheme and believe recent media coverage about Britain’s expanding carbon footprint will have raised consumer awareness, most have their doubts that shoppers will fully understand or embrace the label’s concept for some time - especially as it leaves many buyers baffled.
“I don’t think the majority of people know what it’s about, because I don’t either,” says one buyer. “It needs to be more high-profile.”
The majority of buyers say that, for the scheme to take off, more work must be done across the industry to make the label as simple as possible.
“If it starts to become more like the government’s 5-a-day scheme then consumers will understand it,” says one, who points out there is still only a minority of people eating their recommended amount of fruit and vegetables a day. “This proves how long these ideas can take to sink in.”
Others are less optimistic about its success. “There are some people who will be really into the idea and will seek out food with the label as a way of giving something back, but there are plenty more who won’t care,” predicts a colleague.
Last month Walkers cheese and onion crisps became the first product to carry the new Carbon Trust footprint label, indicating the amount of greenhouse gases created in making the product and bringing it to shelf.
The Carbon Trust takes into account processes that cause emissions, including crop-spraying, transport, the production process through packaging, storage and distribution and the disposal or recycling of packaging. It then awards a product an individual score,which is expressed in grams of CO2 per gram of product.
But there’s a big education job to do, according to some buyers, and suppliers need to shoulder their share of the responsibility in telling retailers and consumers what they’re doing.
“The Carbon Trust label is a good idea but there is confusion because consumers think everything that comes from halfway across the world is bad, when it could have come on a container boat rather than a plane,” according to one buyer.
There is also a certain amount of cynicism among our panel who question the motives of some areas of the industry.
Many felt environmental issues were just the latest big idea and more than one buyer makes the comment that carbon labelling is “something new for the supermarkets and suppliers to compete on”.
They point out that not all retailers and only a few manufacturers have signed up to the Carbon Trust’s scheme.
“The major manufacturers seem to be doing something such as reducing packaging because no company wants to be singled out as being bad for the environment,” adds another.
Most buyers argue packaging is the most important issue. “Packaging is my number-one bugbear, because it affects everybody and is something we’ve all got to take responsibility for,” says one buyer.
“I wish manufacturers would use less packaging as well as more environmentally friendly packaging. If they don’t, we won’t have an environment to enjoy in the future.”
Another adds that greener packaging is the most relevant initiative for his customers. The problem of over-packaging came up repeatedly with buyers - even with those who felt their shoppers didn’t rate the environment as one of their key concerns.
“Green issues aren’t top of my list although packaging is probably the most relevant and we could see more done in reducing its use,” admits one.
None of his suppliers have mentioned plans to use recycled packaging or electric lorries, he says, but he adds: “Our customers don’t worry about the latest fads. They are more concerned about good quality food at good prices.”
Carbon Trust labels aside, neither food manufacturers nor retailers have launched enough environmentally friendly initiatives, according to the survey.
“The impetus for change is only just beginning,” says one grocery buyer. “Once manufacturers realise this is an important issue for people in the long term, and they will probably want to do more. After all, young consumers are particularly switched on to environmental issues and they will become the main consumers of tomorrow.”
But the issue of cost-reduction crops up even when the grocery sector is trying to save the planet, and could be a factor in what shade of green the industry eventually turns.
“It’s hard for suppliers to do too much as they’re under so much pressure from the major multiples on price,” admits one household buyer. “If they have a choice between doing something green or reducing costs, they’ll probably reduce costs.”
IS THE CARBON TRUST LABEL A GOOD IDEA?
Don’t know 0%
DO YOU THINK CONSUMERS UNDERSTAND WHAT IT MEANS?
Don’t know 0%
ARE SUPPLIERS INVOLVED IN ENOUGH GREEN INITIATIVES?
Don’t know 0%
WHICH GREEN INITIATIVES DO YOU THINK ARE MOST IMPORTANT FOR CONSUMERS?
Recycled packaging 83%
Reducing carbon footprint 0%
Making environmentally friendly products 17%
Source: Online poll conducted by The Grocer