What if we could understand a product’s environmental impacts at a glance?

Planetary Facts Labelling

Dr Kate Meyer is founding director of the Planetary Accounting Network, a framework that helps people, businesses and governments to make decisions that will revitalise and sustain our environment. In this article Kate shares her thoughts on the environmental cost of the festive season and introduces ‘Planetary Facts Labelling’, whereby a consumer can see the environmental impacts of the product or service on our planet’s health from a label similar to nutritional labels.
 

Christmas is such a special time. Schools and offices close. Kayaks and bikes are loaded onto roof racks. Families come together to eat, drink, play some back-yard cricket, swim, and relax. Barefoot kids running under pohutukawas while parents fire up the barbie. Since returning to New Zealand, this time of year brings so much nostalgia and excitement.

But each year in the lead up to Christmas my anxiety about our planet grows and grows. All I can see is towers of plastic toys in plastic packaging, wrapped in shiny paper and bows that will all be cast aside after a few minutes of entertainment; dead trees or plastic trees adorned in even more plastic. I find myself cringing over the shrieks of delight as Christmas crackers pop showering high-carbon junk across the room, at plates overloaded with meat after meat leading to bloated bellies and bins overflowing with wasted calories.

I know I am not alone in this view – I have lost count of the number of people who asked me whether to buy a real or a fake tree this year (if you are wondering the same thing, my recommendation is to get a small potted tree that can move indoors for a few weeks every year – this is what I had as a kid and it was a very treasured tree).

Tinsel and other Christmas decorations may fill our living rooms with festive cheer but certainly don’t get the sustainability tick.

For the eco-conscious, Christmas amplifies the sustainability guilt and justification that goes alongside every decision you make. Sustainability can feel like an endless list of unachievable rules. My father tried very hard last weekend to cater for my “climatarian” diet by buying vegan sausages. I thanked him, and swallowed down the sausages – but all the time wondering are these highly processed sausages wrapped in plastic really better for the planet than the locally produced butcher’s sausages wrapped in paper that everyone else is having? Frankly I couldn’t tell you the answer – but the flavour and texture certainly prevented any overindulgence so perhaps on balance yes.

The problem is, even a carrot has some impact. The land that might once have been a thriving ecosystem. The effort and resources needed to sew, grow, harvest and transport it. If even a carrot has impact, at what point can we be rid of sustainability guilt. How can we ever feel confident that we are being kind to our planet? We need to know how much is good enough!

Planetary Facts labels are a game changer

Imagine if every product and service disclosed “Planetary Facts”; the environmental impacts of the product or service on our planet’s health, in the context of robust science-based recommended limits. Nutritional Facts on food products help us to manage our own health by telling us not only that there are 5.8g of saturated fat in a Moro bar but also that this is 24% of an average person’s recommended daily intake. Planetary Facts labels can help us to manage our planet’s health in the same way.

Carbon labelling is starting to appear on products, but these only tell a small piece of the story. Planetary Facts labels provide a concise but holistic picture of the environmental impacts (and restoration) associated with our purchases. They are based on leading Earth-system science –the Planetary Boundaries, which are widely considered the “gold standard” for global environmental sustainability. First published in 2009 by 28 internationally renowned scientists the Planetary Boundaries set out the nine non-negotiable global environmental limits–within which the risk of fundamentally changing the Earth-system is low. We have exceeded at least five.

By drawing from the familiar Nutritional Facts labelling format these labels present a relatively complex set of data in an easy to digest format. However, for those who need a bit more info to understand the labels or just like a little detail, QR codes will direct consumers to plenty of information including explanations of each metric and why they are important, broader context such as performance of the product against industry benchmarks.

By drawing from the familiar Nutritional Facts labelling format these labels present a relatively complex set of data in an easy to digest format. However, for those who need a bit more info to understand the labels or just like a little detail, QR codes will direct consumers to plenty of information including explanations of each metric and why they are important, broader context such as performance of the product against industry benchmarks.

Want to support us and be part of this exciting initiative? Donate here, share this story, and follow us on social media (Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram). Want to join the pilot? It’s not too late! Email info@planetaryaccounting.org for more info.

In the meantime, I encourage you to do what you can to make this festive period, and your 2021 as sustainable as you can. Set yourself ambitious New Year’s challenges that are a step change on your sustainability journey and keep sustainability in mind whenever your credit card comes out.

6 thoughts on “What if we could understand a product’s environmental impacts at a glance?

  1. I’m not happy with this simplistic idea. I gather from the article the author thinks meat is environmentally unsound, but I’m sure my animals, grazing a diverse non-irrigated pasture, are actually help build carbon stores in the soil. This is complete contrast to grain-fed feedlot cattle whose carbon, water, etc footprint is very high. Similarly with vegetables- out of season veges brought in from Australia are a completely different story to local, organic/regenerative produce…. my point is, it’s not always the product, it’s the details of how it’s grown, produced, transported. There are many goods of course that can be simply put in the unsound basket – crappy plastic toys, tinsel, fast fashion – and you don’t really need a label to know.

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  2. yaha had this realisation; advertising disclaimers. my enquiry is; what financial mechanisms improve local ownership, and how is the NPO sector advantaged over the profit sector? we’re shifting a social (or commercial) narrative. so NPO’s have better quality products and services, by controlling hazards; and this reduces the economic costs of social and ecological risks. So a regulatory restriction can be controlling for distorted depictions in branding, that deliver consumer choice. The NPO sector actually holds the handle of power by filling in gaps in an accreditation tier; especially for emerging sectors; we set the standards and issue the acreditations for certifying bodies. not being certified organic (ie using pesticide), or not being certified local (slave labour conditions) means you carry a discliamer of potential risk. strengthening NPOs can mean we support the profit sector for transformational change, while securing local supply and equalising distribution through community and household sufficiency models. this would mean a charity that trades though, to establish a revenue base

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  3. Tainter comes to mind – and the energy-cost of complexity.

    Just don’t buy stuff; it needs no complex monitoring, the same way carbon doesn’t.

    But of course, not buying stuff collapses the ‘economy’, with knock-on effects. Like ‘poverty’.

    Come on, BFF; one-topic stuff needs to be integrated into ‘everything else’.

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