Carbon Labeling Could Fill Information Vacuum

Ingredient Lists Often Incomplete

By Cynthia Schultz

Many property managers know that operating a facility in a Green and environmentally preferable manner is a journey with no end point. New products, techniques, concepts, and systems are always being developed that help reduce a facility’s environmental impact.  But property managers may not have all the tools they need to make a thorough, Green-responsible decision when it comes to selecting a wide range of items from cleaning products to floor coverings.

This is because, Green or not, we currently do not always know what ingredients are inside many of the product we select for our facilities. Let’s use the following example to better explain the issue:

A Toronto property decided to open a day-care center in the building for the use of tenants. Of course, because it would be designed for young children, the managers took extra precautions to make sure everything selected and installed in the center would be safe and kid friendly.

When it came to cleaning the center’s restrooms and foodservice area, the managers were considering two different, Green-certified cleaning chemicals. Not knowing which was the most environmentally preferable, they asked their janitorial distributor if one product contained a certain ingredient that although Green has been linked to respiratory illness for some children.

They also questioned where the products were made. Transporting a product made in the Toronto area would require less fuel and produce fewer greenhouse gases (GHG) and other carbon emissions than one imported from California, Mexico, or another great distance.

The distributor was unable to answer these questions. Further, the labels on both products provided few clues. Both listed some of the key ingredients in the products, but there was not full ingredient disclosure. Further, only potentially hazardous ingredients were noted on the accompanying material safety data sheets (MSDS).

Information about where the products were made also was not available. The labels listed the main offices for the companies that manufactured the products but did not indicate the manufacturing location.

The bottom line is that for these environmentally conscious managers, the tools they needed to make the most environmentally responsible decision and help ensure the health of the children using the center were simply not available. This is why more and more Green advocates are calling for labeling programs that tell the consumer exactly what ingredients are used to make a product along with its GHG emission levels, to determine its carbon footprint.

Some Labeling History

Wanting to know what’s inside a product is nothing new. About 700 years ago, there was a bit of an uproar in England when people discovered that many bakers were using a variety of ingredients other than flour to make bread. Although the ground beans and peas added to the bread helped reduce the cost to make and sell the product, many customers simply wanted to know if the bread they were selecting was made from just flour or a combination of flour and other ingredients.

In time, concerns mounted to the point that the king stepped in and is reported to have required that some type of label be placed on all bread indicating the ingredients. History designates this as the first product labeling program ever instituted.

For centuries after this, many North American manufacturers started listing some of the ingredients in their products on a voluntary basis. Usually these were

only the key ingredients. And starting in the 1970s, labels including ingredient and nutritional information were common. However, once again, the labels typically mentioned some ingredients—but not all of them.

Will Product Labeling Make a Difference?

It makes sense that consumers would want to know exactly what is in a product, but the big question is whether knowing will really make a difference. Will consumers change their buying habits, selecting products based on their ingredients and where they are made?

The answer seems to be, at least at this time, yes and no. When it comes to North American fast-food restaurants, for example, some studies indicate many consumers still select the double cheeseburger even when they are made aware of how many calories or how much cholesterol it may contain.

But the managers in the previous day-care scenario would most likely select the cleaning chemical that does not contain the ingredient that might cause respiratory problems in children. And as far as food labeling in general, a 2010 article in the American Journal of Public Health (Issue 100, 2010, pages 312–318) finds that when consumers read labels that include such things as calorie information in a food item, they typically select those products that have fewer calories.

A Look at Carbon Labels

It’s not just ingredient labels at issue but carbon labeling as well. Some programs have already been established that help determine the volume of GHG emitted by a product during its entire life cycle, from the raw materials used in the product and its manufacture to packaging and transport as well as eventual disposal.

Here is an example of a carbon label:

The carbon footprint of this product is 2.5 kg. This is the total carbon dioxide and other GHG emitted during its life, including production, use, and disposal. We (the manufacturer) have reduced the carbon footprint of this product 10 percent in the past five years and are committed to reducing it another 10 percent in the next two years.

With this information available, if a consumer has a choice between a product with a carbon footprint of 2.5 kg and another that is essentially the same but with a carbon footprint of 2.0 kg, there is a great likelihood he or she will select the product that has the fewest GHG emissions and smallest carbon footprint.

How About You?

A development in the Green movement is that while more companies want to select environmentally responsible products, they also want to purchase them from companies that are also Green and environmentally responsible. This means all of us—vendors, manufacturers, and building operators—need to have some idea of what products we use to operate our facilities, the resources they consume, and their overall environmental impact.

Although gathering this data may at first appear to be a cumbersome undertaking, sustainable “dashboards” have recently been introduced that help facility managers decipher an assortment of information, providing accurate measurements of such things as use of fuel, water, and energy. In essence, this information can be used as building’s ingredient and carbon label.

Potential tenants are already inquiring about such information. And they are doing this for two key reasons. First, a Green facility with a low environmental impact is typically a sign of a well-run and well-operated building. Second, a Green facility with a low environmental impact typically indicates one that is operated in a cost-efficient manner. And cost savings can have an impact on future building operating costs, a key concern for all tenants who typically must share these expenses.

Cynthia Schultz is the chief operating officer for Sustainable Dashboard Tools, LLC. an online software system that allows users to measure the natural resources their businesses use and the greenhouse gas emissions they generate. She may be reached via the company web site at www.green2sustainable.com

Article originally appeared in Canadian Property Management