From banking to food and flights, the environmental impact of our daily purchases is becoming more widely available. Last July, customers who bank with NatWest began to see the estimated CO₂ emissions associated with their spending in the app; shoppers may start to spot eco Impact scores on food packaging; since October travellers have been able to consider the carbon emissions of their trips when using Google Flights; and from April, investors will be able to view the climate exposure of UK financial organisations.

Rather than having to be sought out, the carbon footprints of our everyday purchases are now presented back to us much like a price tag, with a new push to ensure this information is easy to understand and act upon. The aim is to empower the consumer, enabling us to consider the impact of our purchases on the environment just as we consider the impact on our wallets. Some of these carbon-measuring services use a basic scale (such as an A to E rating), while others are providing points of comparison alongside traditional CO₂ metrics. For example, the NatWest approach is to calculate the number of smartphones that, when charged, would produce the same emissions as your purchases.

Demand for environmental data from consumers themselves is growing, prompted by public concern about climate change. In a recent ONS survey, those who reported some level of worry about climate change (75 percent) were three times more likely to have made changes to their lifestyle than those who were relatively unworried. The supply chain disruptions that followed in the wake of Covid-19 and Brexit have likely contributed to awareness, shining a spotlight on the huge distances travelled by some goods to reach UK consumers.

Demand for environmental data from consumers themselves is growing, prompted by public concern about climate change

At the same time, businesses are becoming more willing and able to supply environmental information, with those such as Uber signalling their green credentials. Suppliers of sustainability data, such as new retail app Cogo, are also growing. Of course, some of these initiatives will be driven by concerns about the bottom line rather than the environment, and any such initiative is at risk of being greenwashed. This risk was highlighted last year when it was revealed that many ‘100 percent renewable’ electricity tariffs were rather less green than they sounded.

The success or failure of schemes that share environmental information relies to some degree on the reactions of consumers, who must be aware, willing and able to make different choices. Three factors are critical to success: information being easy to comprehend, displayed consistently across products and, most importantly, credible. These measures could, at a minimum, educate businesses and consumers on their environmental footprints. At their most effective, they could empower consumers to vote with their feet and force change in those businesses that have been slow to confront their carbon emissions.

But these initiatives are not without risk. Even if consumers are keen to play their part, many may simply not be able to afford green alternatives. Viewed cynically, these metrics allow businesses to ‘take action’ by reporting their environmental impact without forcing real reductions in emissions. And consumers may become overwhelmed and unable to interpret or trust these new signals: currently, there is no cross-industry standard on how CO₂ emissions should be calculated or communicated.

Whether these measures lead to a significant reduction in emissions is still to be seen, so it is crucial new efforts are evaluated and the bodies behind them share their learnings. As more schemes appear, we can expect to see increasing calls for a cross-industry metric. While this is a significant coordination challenge, it would aid consumer comprehension and shine a light on those industries that are lagging behind.

Nesta is committed to creating a sustainable future and our work is focused on reducing carbon emissions and their impact.