In a recent discussion with a planner the question of over-consumption came up and how it impacts the health of our planet. It is understood that we consume more raw materials than a sustainable eco-system can provide for. In 2007 our (global) Ecological Foot Print was 1.5 planet earth, i.e. we consumed earth’s resources 1.5 times faster than the earth can renew them. The developed nations consume world resources 32 times greater than the developing world. The question wriggling in our minds is how to curb the un-necessary consumption and consume wisely.
The answer is to change the behaviour of enough people in developed nations to make a noticeable difference in their consumption patterns. The only way to achieve this is through education, technology and some regulation. Before I expand on these aspects let me remind you of an example where we were able to change our collective behavior with positive results, and that was the campaign against smoking.
The most effective way to change life style is when it springs from within the society without coercion from the state. The campaign against tobacco consumption took more than two decades to change and curb smoking patterns in our society. It was a combined effort through education which focused on health risks of smoking, an increased desire in the society for healthy living, rules prohibiting smoking in hospitals and workplaces, discouraging advertisement of such products among the most susceptible population such as school age children, and governmental regulations requiring warning signs on tobacco products.
We can employ a similar approach of education and regulation to change the patterns of consumption in our society, thus reducing the environmental degradation, and negative trends in climate change. To bring about that change consumers need to be given choices when they are out shopping. We can do that by identifying products with small Carbon Foot Print (CFP) Label. That would require labeling all products including airline tickets and may be services too down the road. Further, we need to track consumer’s behavior of shopping with the labeled products and provide them with a positive feedback.
The label could be designed in different ways but there would be two important elements to it, one would be a row of three different colored boxes, and the box marked would indicate that products Carbon Foot Print (CFP). The three colored boxes would be green, blue and orange. If green box is marked that would indicate a smaller CFP, if blue box is marked on the label that would indicate an acceptable CFP, if the orange box is marked that would mean that the product has an undesirable CFP.
I do understand that at present it is hard to calibrate carbon foot print of most products manufactured in the world and there is no consensus what acceptable standards should be for grading them. But I believe soon we will figure that out. International Organization of Standards, European Union, and the United States are working on finding acceptable standards of CFP. However, CFP labeling is a good and simple method to help a consumer make intelligent choices on the go, and guide his consumption behavior.
The second part of the label would be a square bar code. That bar code would have all the pertinent technical information about the CFP of that product which consumer doesn’t need to know while shopping. With every purchase that information goes into a data bank tracking how the CFP labeled products are doing in the market place. But the most important part of the program would be to share that information with the consumer.
That could be done through an online personal account of CFP information of the purchases a consumer makes. A consumer would open a personal CFP account on line or a retailer would help him open one, at present some retailers like CVS and Wallgreens in the United States already have created such personal accounts of shoppers where they keep track of purchases and offers the shoppers store discounts through their account ID. So, once a consumer has a CFP account then every time he or she makes a purchase some technical information from CFP square bar code goes on his personal CFP account. The consumer online CFP data service would then present that information to individual consumers in a fashion that ordinary person could understand, mostly in simple numbers, charts and bar graphs. A consumer would be able to go online and see the effects of his shopping choices and see how his choices has improved his Carbon Foot Print. The CFP account will also measure a consumer’s enumerated CFP over a period of months and years with a desirable benchmark to compare with. That kind of simple statistics combined with positive reinforcement is necessary to keep the consumer making intelligent choices while shopping. Furthermore, the online personal CFP account can be combined with educational material to increase the awareness of how educated choices by consumers positively affect the climate and the planet.
There are three aspects of this labeling system I would like to emphasize. One, it doesn’t burden the consumer with unecessary technical information while he is shopping. Second, the technical information stored in a bar code could be more substantive then it could fit on the label In plain language. Third, as the methods of caliberating CFP and its standards change or vary from country to country the label would retain its basic form because the square bar code would accommodate changes in the data and it would not be noticeable to ordinary person.
Finally, the online CFP accounts of individuals would provide a much better apportunity to educate consumers and effect their consumption behavior. Over time collecting a data base where consumer choices are tied to CFP of products would give many tools to manufacturers, economists, and governmental agencies. That kind of data would help manufacturers improve on methods of production to reduce their CFP and earn consumer’s trust, and further help modulate the unwise patterns of consumption.