Will carbon ecolabels on products make a big enough difference to overall carbon reduction efforts? Our preliminary research shows that consumers are likely to take the information into consideration. In particular, there is a measurable impact on their intentions. But my concern (as yet unproven) is that it could all be a bit too much for people -- even the well-intentioned ones -- to deal with in the midst of their busy everyday lives. Michael Specter's recent essay in the New Yorker brings up similar concerns.
What I am finding through real-world projects is that carbon footprinting is something that can be used and acted upon throughout a product life cycle, and not just at the consumption stage. If we wanted to minimize a product's carbon footprint, a footprint analysis can reveal opportunities throughout the supply, consumption and disposal chain. Focusing on just the consumption stage risks missing these other opportunities. Some of the biggest carbon-reduction opportunities may be in business-to-business dealings (such as optimizing a product and its packaging together in collaboration with the package manufacturer, or working with a raw materials supplier to squeeze out waste and excessive energy use in the supply chain) as opposed to business-to-consumer interactions.
From a whole system perspective, it may actually turn out to be inefficient to leave all the optimization to the consumer, who can only choose between finished/packaged products or choose to consume less of something. There is no doubt some value in sending "signals" through purchasing decisions, and for that reason it is nice to have consumers in the loop and have them be one of the drivers in carbon reduction efforts. But what we don't know yet is how strong and coherent these signals are likely to be. So I would also want to make sure that all the pre- and post-consumer stages have been optimized as much as possible, independent of any ecolabeling.
There are significant returns to be had. Consumers may well reward manufacturers who make low-carbon products and publish the product footprints (assuming good and consistent analysis methodology). But the more immediate return from optimizing the product life-cycle carbon may be much bigger (given the cost of energy for starters). All of this still needs to be proven rigorously, but it is a good time to start thinking about the full ROI (carbon savings + financial returns) from carbon footprinting efforts.