business news in context, analysis with attitude

A fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal reports that “manufacturers and retailers across the globe are working to measure their products' carbon footprints for a variety of reasons, and all of the efforts have one thing in common: The results have the appearance of precision.

“But all the decimal points in the world can't hide the fact that measuring carbon footprints is inexact. It is clouded by varying methodologies and definitions -- not to mention guesses … Few products demonstrate the messiness of this effort more than a simple carton of milk. Several studies in various countries have already sought to tally the impact of milk from its production on a farm to the disposal of its carton. In between, the studies try to measure such intricacies as the energy used to make the fertilizer to grow feed for the cows, to fuel trucks delivering the milk, and to power refrigerators cooling it in kitchens.”

Both Walmart and Tesco are among the companies trying to establish the carbon footprint for a quart of milk, and the story makes clear precisely how much subjectivity is involved. But they also are faced with another problem – once they have come up with a legitimate (or at least, defensible) number, how do they communicate that information to customers in an unambiguous and actionable fashion?
KC's View:
And, there’s another question – how does the industry make such a measurement a legitimate melding of both scientific information and marketing priorities? Because it strikes me as utterly fair that these numbers have marketing applicability, but they also have to have scientific viability.

I may be an easy mark on such issues, but I actually give companies a lot of credit for trying to figure this out…and will forgive them missteps as the science advances and we learn more about these problems. But understanding carbon footprints does seem to be a priority…and learning how to apply that understanding is the critical next step.

It also seems to me that if Walmart and Tesco are going to set the tone in this debate, other retailers need to engage to the same level, to the degree that it is possible. I think that thought leadership is vital, especially to the next generation of environmentally minded consumers.