Carbon crisps

Last updated: May 2008


Is carbon labelling a good thing, and will it help in the battle against climate change asks Simon Birch?

You’ll never look at a packet of cheese and onion crisps in the same way again. Having spent a lifetime being upstaged by countless pints of bitter, Walkers Cheese & Onion crisps are now centre-stage in a pioneering project which aims to help industry move to a low-carbon economy.

Last May, Walkers Cheese & Onion crisps (the company’s best selling flavour) became the first consumer food item anywhere in the world to carry a label on its packet detailing its carbon footprint.  Using pioneering techniques and measuring systems, Walkers have established that the carbon footprint of each packet of crisps weighs in at 75g. 

At the same time that the carbon label appeared on crisp packets, Innocent smoothies published details online of the carbon footprint of its mango and passion fruit smoothie, whilst Boots began displaying information in 250 of its stores about the carbon footprint of a number of its shampoos.  With another wave of companies signing up to the project this February, there are now 20 companies working out the carbon footprint of everything from irons to t-shirts.

“Increasing numbers of companies are reducing their operational carbon emissions and the next step to further reduce these emissions is to target end products and services,” explains Jim Peacock from the Carbon Trust which is coordinating the project.  “To do this we need to establish the carbon footprint of the entire supply chain which will identify where carbon savings can be made.”



Food and drink impacts

Whilst there’s rightly been great efforts at trying to reduce the carbon emissions from highly polluting sectors such as transport and housing, there’s been virtually no work up until now on cutting the carbon emissions arising from the food and drink industry. According to the Carbon Trust, this sector is responsible for around 13% of the UK’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, which to put it into perspective, is almost double the emissions from aircraft.

But what good does the label actually do and what does it tell consumers, if anything?

“The label tells consumers two things,” replies Steve John, Director of Corporate Affairs at Pepsi, the transnational which owns the Walkers brand. “First that we’ve measured the carbon impact of the crisps and second that we’re committed to reducing this figure. Every investment and business decision affecting Walkers is now being looked at through the lens of carbon and we take this public commitment very seriously.”



Cautious welcome?

So what do the great, the green and the good make of the carbon label and what difference will it make in the campaign against climate change?

“The fact that carbon labelling is even being discussed is a sign that a section of the food industry acknowledges that its carbon footprint is enormous and this is to be welcomed,” concludes veteran food campaigner Professor Tim Lang of City University in London.

Kath Dalmeny from Sustain, which campaigns for better food and farming, believes that the process of measuring the carbon footprint is actually more useful than the label itself:  “As it stands the label itself doesn’t mean anything as there’s nothing to compare it against. What is valuable though is that companies are committing themselves to reducing their carbon footprint which is a good thing.”

Climate change campaigner George Marshall however is more sceptical about the likely impact of carbon labels.  “Are carbon labels on crisp packets helpful in the fight against climate change? No,” replies Marshall.  “A packet of crisps represents a tiny contribution to an individual’s carbon footprint. What would make a big impact though is if we had carbon footprint labels on really big carbon polluters such as houses and even flights.”

Paul Monaghan, Head of Ethics and Sustainability at the Co-operative Group which is currently researching the carbon footprint of its strawberries, defends the concept of carbon footprinting for food products:  “As a business pioneering the development and implementation of carbon footprinting technology, we’ve found it invaluable in understanding where the carbon hotspots are in our products’ lifecycle, and therefore being able to target these for big reductions.”

However the final word is left to Dr Kevin Anderson from the Tyndall Centre in Manchester which has been spearheading work into carbon trading for individuals:  “I’m very uncertain about the value of carbon labelling,” believes Dr Anderson. “Voluntary measures like this can only go so far, and they are just a first move towards a more regulatory framework that’s necessary to tackle climate change.”



A low carbon diet?

Current UK average per capita carbon emissions = 11 tonnes

Per capita figure if Government adopted 80% cut in carbon emissions as demanded by Friends Of the Earth = 2.2 tonnes

Sustainable daily allowance of carbon (2.2tonnes/365days) = 6kg

Sustainable daily allowance of carbon from food (currently 13%) = 780g

% of your daily allowance of carbon from one Innocent fruit smoothie + one packet of Walkers crisps (294 + 75 = 369g) = 47%

It is illuminating to consider that, using current Carbon Trust figures, a sustainable diet would allow you two smoothies and two packets of crisps a day before virtually all your allowance was used up.  Could you live on that?


From Ethical Consumer, Issue 112, May/June 2008