THE BLOG
06/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Empowering Consumers, One Square at a Time

Last week, UK retailer Tesco added toilet paper to its list of more than 100 own-brand products bearing carbon labels. Toilet paper joins the likes of orange juice, laundry detergent and light bulbs as household items Tesco has carbon-calculated, and represents another step forward in the company's ongoing effort to carbon-label every Tesco product.

I am sit down excited that Tesco -- a company committed to the notion of corporate responsibility, both in the sense of caring for the environment and in helping to better educate consumers -- has reinforced that commitment by way of carbon data on a toilet paper roll.

Not everyone was as thrilled as me to hear the news. In fact, Tesco's toilet paper initiative earned them a bit of (pardon the pun) crap from some. Leo Hickman pondered, in an article in last Thursday's Guardian:

The big question, though, is will this extra information motivate you to change your habits in any way? The next time you lurch towards the toilet-roll holder, will you choose to use a few sheets fewer to reduce your carbon footprint, no matter how infinitesimally small the saving might be?

I can't speak for Tesco, but as the CEO of a company that introduced a similar product labeling concept in our Green Index™ two years ago, I can't help but feel that Mr. Hickman is missing the point. The idea behind eco-labeling is to help consumers make better informed purchasing decisions -- not to curtail their consumption habits. The concept is simple: if companies show consumers at the point of sale how to make smart choices, consumers will make smart choices. They'll buy Tesco's brand rather than squeezing the Charmin. Give consumers actionable data, and they make the right choice. Flush away the rhetoric, and consumers act in good conscience.

Contrary to what many would have us believe, its not just politicians and celebrities who are up in arms about climate change. The data is actually quite clear -- normal, everyday consumers are concerned about the health of the environment, and they're willing to reward brands that help them act responsibly, in simple but effective ways.

Carbon labeling can be a simple and effective way to empower consumers. Comparing products side by side is regular, normative consumer behavior. Adding to that comparison, simple and standard data about climate impact, along with price or ingredients or other performance attributes, invites the consumer to act in his or her self-interest. Brands that get it right -- price, performance, environmental thoughtfulness -- will earn the sale.

In our industry, the government hasn't yet imposed requirements for disclosure about carbon impact. It is left to us, as competitors, to develop an industry-applicable "eco-index" for measuring products and companies. And while the progress is sometimes hard to discern, Timberland continues to work alongside more than 80 of our peers in the outdoor industry to try and build consensus for a label that would allow consumers to act at retail like the citizens they are. Two years after introducing our Green Index™, the pace remains... slow. But we're not giving up.

Because we believe that consumers, given the right information, make the right choice. That their consumerism can be satisfying and thoughtful at the same time. And we believe that when there finally is some simple way to compare the products built by responsible brands and companies with the products built by less thoughtful competitors, the consumer will vote clearly and simply. And when they do, companies like Tesco will win.

Jeffrey Swartz is the President and CEO of The Timberland Company. More information about Timberland's commitment to the environment can be found at www.earthkeeper.com.