Give to customers a way to know which products create less greenhouse gases and encourage them to purchase them by giving them rewards.
In July 2011, a very innovative initiative has been started by France's government. It was then relayed by a new initiative by the European union.
Basically, we all know some products display ecologos of all kinds but none of them really give specific and quantitative information on how much greenhouse gases result from the products. That project consists of displaying on everyday products a label giving information on the environmental performance, a little bit like nutritional labels tell you how much calcium and proteins are in the product.
The european project takes the environmental information from a very scientific methodology called life cycle assessment. The advantages of life cycle assessments is that it takes in count all the impacts associated with the product from the cradle to the grave, meaning including the extraction of materials needed, the transportation, the fabrication, the usage and the final disposal.
The methodology already exists, we do not need to create it. I come with an unfair advantage because I made a research project on this for my master in environment and I am also a member of expert comittes on this project.
While this project is about communicating multicriteria information(impact on water, air, humans, then greenhouse gases), some countries around the world already do communicate on greenhouse gases.
I live in North America and projects like this, to my knowledge, are very rare here. If not they are probably not federal government driven.
So the first part of my proposal is to create an initiative to invite and help companies in North America to display the carbon footprint on their products using already established methodologies.
But once the greenhouse gases are communicated on products, it does not mean people will buy the most ecofriendly because of it.
So the second part of this proposal is to create a reward system for eco friendly purchases. This type of reward system already exist. People have already figured out many ways.
Category of the action
What actions do you propose?
1- First, create a pilot initiative for North America promoted in many places, on a website etc, where companies can demonstrate their environmental engagement by accepting to disclose their products environmental footprints.
You will be surprised to see how many companies accept to do so if they feel like there is a new trend they need to monitor and be part of. In France, more than 100 companies participated, but it is probably because the initiative was initiated by the government and backed up by some strong laws. Companies felt like they would be smarter to join the initiative, prepare,influence instead of just being taken by surprise. And a lot of companies actually learnt a lot from the experience and even found ways to reduce their cost and their environmental impacts.
So the first step would be to create the initiative for North America, find a way to back it up with some credible organizations(how about MIT?), and connect with other groups working on the same thing around the world.
The idea that the initiative could be backed up by academia makes sense. Life cycle assessments are expensive and the only way such a system can work is if companies have access to partnerships with universities.
Create an application period when companies can express their interests and select one their products for which they want to do it.
My experience in such a project is that there are a lot of challenges related to how fast we go. It is better to adopt a voluntary approach but at the same time, we cannot rely only on companies to walk the talk all the way. So we need an external driver that will act as a pressure factor to companies, that driver is the consumers.
2-Communicate to consumers
We need to communicate to consumers and explain what we are trying to do. Weirdly, my experience is that consumers might be harder to move than companies. So we need a driver: the reward system.
We need to offer a reward system that is very attractive to people and that is linked to their everyday costs. For Instance, in the city of Toronto, transportation is very expensive with monthly passes for metro and tramway over 120$. If we could create a reward system, allowing the people who purchase the products with the least greenhouse impacts, to earn points that are then redeemable in transportation passes reduction, maybe that we will reach many people.
But in the city of Toronto, we already have the livegreen card membership that allows people to earn reductions in nice places. It is not extremely popular. But maybe if we could make people earn points when they do their groceries and then redeem them in things that they pay every months, now we would be talking.
So, what is implicit is this project is that by rewarding the purchase of less polluting products, we could reduce the purchases of more polluting ones. And what do you think companies will do if they see their competitors grab a bigger part of the market because of a better carbon footprint? They will try to figure out how to improve their carbon footprints. And unfortunatly, they will be able to cheat because greenhouse gas communication is not enough but this is another story.
So we communicate to consumers, we promote, we sell the idea.
3-We launch the initiative
We need to launch the initiative and find a way to make it popular.
Obviously all those steps are just the tip of the iceberg. Partnerships need to be made, logistical details need to be decided. This project is complex but there are two reasons why this proposal is feasible:
-First, similar projects are already running right now for the communication part and we can learn from many companies that are using different ways to reward eco behaviors.
-Second, I am actually the best person to initiate such a project because I have the expertise, I have the network and I already know most of the challenges.
So anyone willing to go into that direction can really count on me.
Who will take these actions?
I do not know if we can count on federal governments in North America to start such initiatives but we probably can count on some states in America and some cities all around the continent to try and start such an initiative.
Businesses would volunteer to disclose the environmental impact of their products.
Academia, universities would help businesses with the calculations and updates of the greenhouse impacts.
Non profit would promote the project.
We need an organization to run the reward system.
We need additional funding for one reason: My experience is that no matter how good a project is, no matter how well intentioned are the diverse actors, most people involved want to get something out of it, and that something is usually money. So that grant could serve for a small pilot but to make the initiative bigger we need to seek additional funding.
Where will these actions be taken?
This project will take place in North America since many other places have already started. Even in North America, places like Quebec have tried the carbon footprint communication side but the project stopped and it did not have the reward aspect to it.
I believe places like California, cities like Denver, New York, in Canada maybe Vancouver, places where we can find a lot of customers who would engage in the project.
How much will emissions be reduced or sequestered vs. business as usual levels?
It is hard to say but the objective will be to reduce a sector's greenhouse production of 25% by 2030.
We talked a lot about products in this proposal but the real impact becomes sectorial. For instance, if we manage to get one player in the coffee industry to display its carbon footprint, it could lead others to follow. The objective is to create a competition based on the carbon emissions. If this is done, we can hope to reduce at least 25% carbon emissions in an industry.
But the hardest part is to make that competition a reality but we need to start somewhere. Maybe that climate colab can be the first step.
What are other key benefits?
The key benefits are the improvement of the environmental communication. People will be able to compare a bottle of juice to another based on the carbon impact.
Companies will have a reason to start assessing the environmental impact of their products on the whole life cycle. In most cases, it leads them to ask questions to their suppliers. All that chain of effect is really good for the environment.
It could also help strengthen initiatives that are already existing right now.
It would also make ecofriendly purchases economicaly rewarding, which is a huge step.
What are the proposal’s costs?
The cost of life cycle assessments are huge but the good news is that many people are working on ways to reduce it to allow similar projects.
Many companies and other actors can be really hostile to this project, I mean really hostile. The more hostile you see people be, the more you should understand the project is a changemaker. We cannot expect great enthousiasm from companies, but at the same time, we could be surprised to see how many companies are actually willing to take the risk to become leaders in the green market.
The biggest risk is the governance of the project. There are so much interest at stake that the governance of the project is crucial. I have seen various formats. I have seen a project led by the government, another led by universities, and others led by companies themselves. They all have enormous governance issues because of obvious conflicts of interests.
The only type I have never seen is a similar project led by citizens. I believe this is the only form that can safeguard the transparency.
We create the initiative, let companies join. We try to get an engagement from government and law makers.
15-50: The environmental display of carbon footprint is now a law everywhere in the world. The initiative is now international, probably still working in some remote areas to implement the project. The objective is now to connect the display systems globally. After 10 years, the communication becomes multicretia, involving other impacts, not just greenhouse gases. After 40 years the reward system is no more needed. People naturally chose the less polluting products.
The system does not exist anymore since most companies excel in reducing their environmental footprint. Now we communicate on environmental services given by products, positive energy, how much energy the product create, how much biodiversity it creates and how much greenhouse gases it captures.