Carbon footprinting products

The Japanese government is launching an initiative to put the carbon footprint on product labels. According to Nikkei (subscription required – although it was also picked up by Planet Retail), labels will show how much carbon dioxide was omitted in producing, distributing and marketing each product. This system is also in place in parts of Europe, apparently.

The first step will involve a study group made up of the largest retailers, Aeon, Seven & I, and Wal-Mart Seiyu, Uny, as well as the Japan Consumer Co-operative Union, a body which has a long history of solving shopping issues such as reducing packaging. The working group will spell out how the labels are designed an the content they should include, as well as which third-party organisations will be used to verify the figures. The system will be tested in the working group’s stores and the government wants to move to full implementation by 2010. It’s likely that the labels won’t be compulsory, but it is equally hoped that opting out would be embarrassing for manufacturers.

Japan, while not obviously the most environmentally concerned country when looking around the rather over concreted ‘natural’ areas and when considering things such as excessive packaging on many products, is fast becoming a country where consumers and companies alike are genuinely making efforts to help prevent damage to the environment. Ex-Prime Minister Koizumi’s campaigns of Cool Biz and then Warm Biz, aimed at making people dress according to the temperature and so reduce reliance on air conditioning in summer and heating in winter, is one such innovative example that has been surprisingly popular – and, at least from the point of view of Uniqlo’s apparel sales, quite successful, although I don’t know of any figures that prove or disprove the success of these campaigns in terms of reducing electricity consumption.

There are also growing moves to reduce the number of plastic bags given out for all kinds of shopping, and there was a minor scandal last year when it was revealed that quite a few companies labeled their packaging as being made from “100% Recycled materials” when the real figure was often no more than 50%. There are even services such as Navitime which allow people to search for the best train and car routes, but which also show the amount of CO2 used by any particular route.

Just how much these moves will affect consumer attitudes is yet to be seen. Reducing plastic bag use is proving easy to sell to local consumers, but whether reducing packaging will be possible remains a big question mark. At the same time, any such move can only be praised as, clearly as we sweat through yet another May day, anything that helps reduce the impact of modern commerce on the environment is to be welcomed.

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