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A carbon-cutting revolutionA carbon-cutting revolution

After a quiet decade, carbon labeling may be poised for a come-back.

Lisa Marshall

December 1, 2016

7 Min Read
A carbon-cutting revolution

Remember carbon labels? If not, you’re not alone.

A decade ago, British retail giant Tesco boldly vowed to start putting the labels—emblazoned with a footprint and a number quantifying the greenhouse gases emitted in a product’s lifecycle—on each of its 70,000 products. Walmart chimed in too, with talk of a consumer-facing “sustainability index” that would incorporate carbon-dioxide emissions and allow people to “consume in a more sustainable way.” A host of companies, from detergent and potato chip makers to clothing manufacturers and breweries jumped on the carbon labeling bandwagon, assessing and publicizing their footprints on tags, packaging, or websites: Patagonia’s Talus Jacket: 66 pounds of CO2. A six-pack of Fat-tire: 7 pounds.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the labels have been largely forgotten. Tesco bagged the idea in 2012, complaining that individual product assessments were too costly and time-consuming. Walmart never followed through. Patagonia dropped the clothing tags. And consumer awareness about carbon emissions appears to have actually declined, with just 68 percent of American adults familiar with the term “carbon footprint,” down 3 percent since 2011, according to the Natural Marketing Institute.

“If you were to query consumers as to what a carbon footprint is, there is a large majority who would have either a lack of understanding or a total misunderstanding,” says NMI managing partner Steve French.

But that could soon change.

While early versions of carbon footprint labeling may not have been ready for prime time, 2016 has brought a new groundswell of interest among natural product companies eager to assess and reduce their emissions and communicate their efforts to retailers, investors, and consumers. This year, the Sustainable Food Trade Association and OSC Squared unveiled a new Climate Collaborative aimed at “leveraging the power of the natural products industry to reduce climate change.” Activists like Tom Newmark of the Carbon Underground and Paul Hawken of Project Drawdown are traveling the country spreading the optimistic word that companies can not only reduce their own emissions but actually draw down carbon already trapped in the atmosphere via practices like regenerative farming and rainforest preservation. Meanwhile, companies like yerba-mate-maker Guayaki have begun to toy again with the idea of labels to educate consumers about what they’re doing to address global warming.

“Carbon labeling is not dead, it’s just dormant,” says Michael Vandenbergh, an environmental law professor and director of the Climate Change Research Network at Vanderbilt University. “I believe we will see it re-emerge in the next five years as consumers and companies begin to get more serious about responding to the climate threat.”

Beyond the low-hanging fruit

In 2007, as Tesco and Walmart mulled their ill-fated carbon footprint labeling schemes, companies large and small began to take a hard look at just how much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases they were belching into the atmosphere. Vermont-based supplement company New Chapter upgraded its lighting and heating systems, urged employees to ride bikes or busses, and began recycling more of their waste rather than shipping it hours away. Fort-Collins-based New Belgium Brewing Company famously published a 32-page report about the carbon footprint of a Fat Tire Beer, and began installing wind and solar power generators, as well as biogas digesters at its plants to reduce its emissions.

“At first, companies moved to get their own house in order and make sure their on-site energy usage was as minimal as possible,” recalls Steve Kooy, director of sales and marketing for SCS Global Services, which conducts third-party carbon footprint audits for companies.

Today, a company’s boast that it uses hybrid vehicles or eco-friendly power sources won’t get much marketing traction, Kooy says, because everyone’s doing it. Nudged by investors increasingly interested in climate-friendly companies, and consumers increasingly alarmed after a series of U.S. natural disasters, companies are taking their climate change efforts a step further, digging deep into their supply chains and insisting that everyone do their part. They’re also looking forward, investing in recyclable packaging and materials to reduce the footprint its product will have when customers are done with it. “Companies are realizing you have to do more than just change lightbulbs,” says Kooy, whose company has seen a huge uptick in detailed “life-cycle assessments” recently.

The rise of regenerative agriculture

Newmark, who founded the supplement company New Chapter and now runs The Carbon Underground and a farm, Finca Luna Nueva, in Costa Rica, says all those efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are well and good. But they don’t go far enough. “If we don’t actually have negative carbon emissions, meaning we are taking legacy carbon out of the atmosphere, we are simply waiting for the full-effect of the global warming train wreck to take hold,” he says. “It’s too late.”

He points to “regenerative agriculture” as a key and totally achievable means of reversing climate change in the next few decades, by both reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by harmful soil-denuding farming practices and creating an enormous “carbon sink” made up of healthy CO2-absorbing humus.

“We don’t just want to reduce the damage that business causes to the climate, we want to use business as a vehicle for good—for climate regeneration,” says Newmark.

Over the last century, research suggests, more than one third of the world’s topsoil has been destroyed, through erosion and soil degrading farming practices, like intensive tilling, mono-cropping, overgrazing, and pesticide use. That’s problematic for two reasons. When soil breaks down, it releases CO2 into the atmosphere. Meanwhile, healthy unbroken soil, full of decaying matter or plant life, serves as a potent CO2 sponge.

One recent white paper released by the Rodale Institute found that if all farmland were converted to a regenerative model (using low or no-tillage farming, cover crops to provide ground cover during off-season) it would sequester 40 percent of annual CO2 emissions, and if all pastureland were managed in a regenerative manner (with lighter grazing) another 71 percent would be sequestered, leading to a “negative emissions scenario.” “Up until now, we have completely failed to recognize soil as the powerful carbon sink that it is,” says Newmark.

In 2015, Newmark hosted the inaugural Regenerative International Conference at his farm, drawing scientists, farmers and business owners from 21 countries. And this April, he called on the National Cooperative Grocers Association to help him spread the word to consumers, food producers, and retailers about the promise of regenerative agriculture.  (A regenerative agriculture toolkit is in the works). He’s now working with industry leaders to come up with a labeling scheme.

“There are some really good companies out there that are producing food and textiles regeneratively, and they should be rewarded as the climate champions that they are,” says Newmark.

Bringing it all together

What happens when a company does all-of-the above, using regenerative farming practices, scrutinizing its supply chain, and getting its own house in order?

Chris Mann, co-CEO of Guayaki Sustainable Rainforest Products recently found out. Through 20 years of business, the organic, fair-trade yerba-mate beverage company has grown its trees in a regenerative fashion, steering clear of mono-cropping and pesticides and helping South American farmers resist the temptation to clear-cut rainforest for cattle grazing or soil-degrading corn and soy production. (Today, 60,000 acres of rainforest have the companies trees planted on it.)

When Mann asked SCS Global Solutions for a complete life-cycle assessment of its company’s contribution to climate change, he was stunned by the results. After 20 years, the company had actually sequestered, or drawn down from the atmosphere, more carbon than it emitted. “It was beyond carbon neutral, it was carbon negative,” he says. “We were super stoked.”

With that report in hand, the company is now working to validate its findings with other third-party sources (to be absolutely sure it’s not overstating its claims) and come up with a label that communicates its accomplishment to consumers in a way that’s tangible and understandable.

“We need to come up with a better term that makes sense to people,” says Mann, pointing to the confusion surrounding terms like carbon footprint and carbon neutral.

Ultimately, Vanderbilt University professor Vandenbergh—who has written extensively about the promise of carbon labeling—envisions a day when certain products are labeled with both a hint at how it was farmed, like “regenerative agriculture,” and a number explaining just how much carbon was emitted or removed from the atmosphere in its making. And unlike a decade ago, he believes consumers and companies are now ready for it.

“Yes, at some point I believe we will see more widespread carbon labeling,” he says. “The only question is: Will we do it in time?”

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