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No.16 Label Me if You Must

September 16, 2009
by Kristine Breese

The big idea: An eye-pleasing, data-rich tag that tells consumers how much CO2 and other pollutants were emitted during the production, packaging, and transportation of the product.

The players: “This goes way beyond tracking how much CO2 you emit when you drive your car one mile,” says Daniel Kammen, a professor in the Energy and Resources Group. “We’re talking about measuring everything, all the energy it takes to get a product to the consumer and all the pollution that’s created.”

For example, food. “The ‘use,’ or eating, of the apple or tomato is obviously not the problem,” he says, “but when you consider all the transportation, storage, and packaging that goes into getting that piece of fruit on the shelf, we’re talking about a huge environmental impact.”

Outdoor apparel company Timberland has already created a type of ecolabel. In February 2007, the company introduced a Green Index label on some of its footwear. The label ranks the shoe from 0 to10 based on its environmental impact, taking into consideration things like greenhouse gas emissions and chemicals used in production. Timberland CEO Jeffrey Swartz has said accurate measurement means going all the way “back to the cow.” The real tipping point, Kammen says, will be when “things are standardized and everyone is using the same metrics.” In other words, once the government gets involved.

What’s next: Kammen suggests that the California Air Resources Board (CARB) would have the authority to “set up a template. With support—and pressure—from the state, it wouldn’t take long before “labels with little thermometers” start popping up on packages. “We could do it by June,” he says.

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