Carbon Reduction Label - is it really going to help us make the right choice?

Those of you out shopping in the UK may have seen the new Carbon Reduction Label appearing on consumer goods? It's a long hoped for aid to those of us who agonise over every supermarket tomato, wondering whether we will make the right carbon choice.

A shopping trip with me is probably quite an eye opener for someone who whizzes round, throwing whatever they fancy into the trolley. I tend to examine country of origin and work out whether this item has got here by boat (ok I think, for items that we don't grow here), whether I should buy the highly packaged organic version or the loose and unpackaged non organic version, is this British vegetable actually still in season, or is it being hot housed somewhere and acquiring a carbon footprint even larger than those beans grown in Kenya under the natural sun? It's a decision that is actually more complex than it first seems, because it's not enough just to buy everything British (or local to you) until you know that it hasn't been driven around the country or grown under lights.

As I pretty much solely buy produce and rarely anything that has more than one ingredient, I don't need to scan labels for hidden nasties like sugar, gluten or trans fats. But my wish to do what I can to reduce my own carbon footprint as a housewife means that I'd love to know what I'm contributing unwittingly through my weekly shop. For example, I buy ethical cleaning products that I know to be 100% biodegradable, produced efficiently in factories run on green electricity. Sounds excellent, yes? It may well be the best choice I could make in terms of environmental sustainability, but until I know how much carbon it accrues on it's journey from Belgium to my shopping basket, I can't make a truly informed choice.

The idea for this post came about when Nick was stirring a teaspoon of sugar into his coffee. I tolerate a bag of white sugar in my cupboard, because I would hate to be thought of as a dietary fascist - but I do secretly fetch it down and tut to myself about the stuff when Nick is out of the house. Hey ho. We make sure that this sugar is always fairtrade, or even better, British - but often struggle to find British (Silver Spoon) sugar and end up with Tate and Lyle (fairtrade).

As I sipped my own cup of roibos with goat's milk (ho ho), my eye lighted on the carbon label on the Tate and Lyle sugar, which claimed to have a carbon footprint of 390 grams of carbon per kilo of sugar produced. I rushed to the computer and looked up the same value for Silver Spoon and found that it was 500 grams. By this reckoning, Tate and Lyle sugar, processed in the UK, from fairly traded sugar cane grown on the other side of the world, produces less carbon, right?

But scratch just a little deeper and it soon becomes apparent that this carbon measurement only refers to the amount of carbon produced by a typical factory of the company in question. It does not take into account the carbon footprint accrued during production and transportation of the raw materials to the factory, or transport of the finished product after it leaves the factory.

Lets say that the sugar cane that Tate and Lyle use for their product has already been processed into molasses before it's shipped to the UK for further processing. Meanwhile, Silver spoon are starting their process with some freshly dug sugar beet from a British farmer. In this scenario, Tate and Lyle have shifted some of the carbon footprint of their product to the unrecorded, pre-manufacture protion of the sugar's journey to your coffee.

But then again, sugar cane is (according to Wikipedia...) one of the most efficient photosynthesisers of the plant kingdom - growing at a rate that would make bamboo look like an oak tree. This means that it's locking up carbon during it's growth phase. It also tends to be harvested by hand rather than machine, as this maximises the sugar content of the stems, which is reduced through mechanical damage in machine harvesting. British beets on the other hand, are always harvested by machine.

What of the large carbon footprint of the fertilisers used to grow the sugar crops? Does the sugar cane require more or less fertiliser than the beets? Should we be choosing organic sugar over everything else because it is produced without the chemical intervention of fertiliser? Where can I find these values and how far should I take this evaluation?

How I would love to find a ready reckoner for the average carbon footprint of goods that I purchase every week. If anyone knows of one, please pass it on here in the comments, so everyone can benefit!

So which one would you choose? How on earth to make this decision, that seemed at first glance to have been made simply for me, by that easily read Carbon Reduction Label.

I'd love to know your thoughts, and how you decide what ethical decisions to make.

I will continue to plump for English honey to bring a little sweetness into my life - preferably cold spun by a local bee keeper.