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What is carbon emission labeling?

Carbon labels show how much carbon dioxide was emitted to make a product.
Dec 26,2009
Imagine that you’re at a supermarket, walking through the aisles and looking for the items on your shopping list. The next item on the list is milk, so you head to the refrigerator aisle and pick a carton up.

But when you look at it, you notice that this is no ordinary carton of milk.

The difference is that this one is marked with a special carbon emission label, also known as a carbon label. The label informs consumers about the amount of carbon dioxide that was emitted when the product was made.

The labels were created to encourage businesses to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during the production process while also raising awareness among consumers about the carbon content of the products they buy. It is hoped that this will prompt businesses to use more environmentally-friendly methods to make their products and entice consumers to choose those products.

With growing awareness about the role that greenhouse gases play in global warming, local supermarkets and discount stores are starting to sell more items with carbon emission labels.

In carbon labeling, the product label provides information on how much carbon dioxide was emitted during the production process, from production to manufacturing to transportation and distribution. It also describes the amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted when the product is used.

Homeplus, one of the nation’s major discount store chains, was the first to start selling products with carbon labels. It put nine private label products on its shelves in April this year. Private label products, also known as store brand products, are items that are manufactured and distributed by the retailer itself. The next month, E-Mart, a large discount store run by the Shinsegae Group, followed and introduced two products with carbon labels to its customers. And in June, Lotte Mart started adding the labels to its PB products, making it the third discount store to do so.

Since then, the number of products with the labels has increased. Now, shampoo, cookies, washing machines and other daily necessities have the labels.

Besides discount stores, other companies including local manufacturers are encouraging eco-friendly consumption by marking their products with carbon emission labels.

If you take a close look at a new washing machine by Samsung Electronics and the recently released Hyundai Motor YF Sonata, you may notice that both products have carbon emission labels.

In addition, Asiana Airlines tells its passengers how much carbon dioxide its Airbus 330 jet emits during a flight from Gimpo to Haneda, Japan.

Meanwhile, the vitamin drinks produced by Kwang Dong Pharmaceutical Company also wear the carbon emission labels. For example, 259 grams of carbon dioxide are exmitted to make a 180-milliliter drink.

But it is said that if the company were to reduce the weight of the bottle by up to 1 percent, it could shave off several grams of carbon dioxide emissions. Kwang Dong is currently considering making the change.

You may wonder, then, if the carbon labels on retail items are making a difference. While it may be too soon to tell, the answer is probably yes. These days, with an increasing amount of evidence about the harmful effects of greenhouse gases on the earth, consumers are more interested in buying products that will help maintain the environment.

Critics, however, are concerned that carbon emission labeling will not help reduce carbon dioxide emission levels overall since consumers can simply ignore the labels. In addition, some scientists argue that marking carbon dioxide emissions levels only shows a “willingness to reduce carbon dioxide levels but has nothing to do with the actual amount of the reduction.”

Some researchers point to an alternate option. They say that instead of informing consumers about how much carbon dioxide is emitted from their products, companies should work to lower their carbon dioxide emissions levels by employing more environmentally friendly production techniques.

Still, the majority of researchers say that carbon emission labeling raises awareness among the general public and can help bring about big changes in the environment in the long term.

According to a survey conducted by the Korea Environmental Industry and Technology Institute, 89.6 percent of the Korean population would buy products with lower carbon dioxide emission levels if they knew the emission levels of the products.

Also, 63 percent of consumers said the labels make them feel more loyal to a product because companies that use the labels show that they care about the environment and are trying to reduce the effects of global warming.

These efforts may be working. The labeling has already created competition among manufacturers of various products. With more people interested in buying “green” products, these companies can attract consumers by reporting lower carbon dioxide levels on their product labels. And they can only do that by making products that use “green” materials and production techniques.

Industry observers say this could lead to production and consumption practices that help preserve the environment.

Next year, the Korea Environmental Industry and Technology Institute is planning to conduct research on 10 items with carbon emission labels to discover whether they have actually helped companies reduce carbon dioxide levels during production. The institute will also launch a certification system for low-carbon products.

Korea’s efforts to “go green” are not new. The government has been introducing methods to fight climate change since early this year. These efforts are in line with the global trend toward fighting climate change, as discussed at the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, that ended Dec. 18.

In the United Kingdom, for example, retail giant Tesco was the first to introduce carbon emission labeling for 20 of its products. That spurred other retailers such as Marks & Spencer to implement the same labeling system.

So the next time you are out shopping, take a moment to consider what you are about to buy and how it affects the world. Will it be the product with the carbon label or the one without?


By Lee Eun-joo [angie@joongang.co.kr]

Shoppers look at products with carbon labels, including bottles of Coca-Cola and cartons of milk, at Homeplus in Yeungdeungpo, southwestern Seoul. [NEWSIS]