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Carbon labelling, food miles too simplistic

Media release 29 November 2007

Carbon labelling, food miles too simplistic for sustainability

Sustainability cannot be built on simple concepts such as carbon labelling and food miles, which can actually send the wrong messages to consumers.

That’s the message the 350 participants in the Primary Industries 2020 Summit heard yesterday (Tuesday 28 November) from international retailers, a brand strategist and the Deputy Prime Minister.

In his opening address, Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen said recent debate in Europe was “nothing more than neo-protectionism”, but New Zealand’s primary industries had to take it as a warning.

The Government would continue to fight any misinformation spread on the subject, but “the debate over food miles is a serious one and is not going to go away”.

In televised interviews two international retailers told the Summit that food miles and carbon labelling over-simplified sustainability and could force consumers to make wrong decisions.

“We have to be really careful that we don’t try and simplify it too much for consumers so that they start to make the wrong choice, or they start to make choices that they are not fully aware of,” said Nick Monger-Godfrey, head of corporate social responsibility for British retailer John Lewis & Waitrose.

For example, although some British producers were using carbon labelling, no research showed it would change buying habits. “I don’t think there’s enough research done that says there’s real consumer interest to procure products on the basis of carbon intensity.”

It is much more important to improve any supply chain efficiencies, because that would decrease carbon emissions and bring cost savings, he said.

From the United States, Wal-mart’s senior director of global supplier initiatives, Jim Stanway, said he also is unconvinced that carbon labelling would make any real difference.

“I don’t know many customers who spend a lot of time in the grocery store looking at labels,” he said. “I don’t think carbon labelling gets us to where we need to go quickly enough.”

Instead, he said, retailers could make a real difference simply by promoting sustainable products.

For example, last year Wal-mart made a big push to get people to use energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. The chain decreased the price of the bulbs but, more importantly, it moved them to eye level on store shelves and moved inefficient bulbs down to lower shelves. The response, he said, was “staggering”.

“The biggest single thing is people don’t like to bend down to pick something up. That drove sales.”

Mr Stanway also said concentrating on food miles is misguided, because transportation seldom accounted for much of a product’s carbon footprint. When Wal-mart calculated its own carbon footprint, its trucking fleet accounted for only 7% of the chain’s emissions.

The biggest contributor to its carbon footprint – at 75% – comes from the electricity used in its stores. “Without the data, you reach the wrong conclusions,” he said. “Let’s see the data, let’s see the true impact.”

And Mr Monger-Godfrey said air miles also didn’t take into account other important aspects of sustainability, such as positive social and economic contributions of trade, and even biodiversity.

Brand strategist Brian Richards said British supermarket chain Sainsbury has also suggested the issue of food miles is not as straightforward as originally thought.

“Importing Kenyan roses may seem to have an excessive carbon footprint, yet under closer scrutiny, including airfreight it was 5.8 times lower than for Dutch roses, grown using artificial heating and lighting,” he said.

“I believe we will arrive at a conclusion that it’s about fair miles, not food miles.”

Primary Industries 2020 is a groundbreaking Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry initiative, bringing together businesses and other stakeholders in New Zealand’s largest economic sector.

The two-day Summit is being headed by Jim Anderton the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry and Biosecurity. It was also addressed on the first morning by the Minister for Climate Change, David Parker.


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