Whither a comprehensive green product rating system?

Being “green” is not always completely straightforward. I was reminded of this recently upon reading the following message, thoughtfully printed on the outside of my polystyrene foam coffee cup:

Carbon footprint fact: an average weight paper hot cup with a cardboard sleeve requires 47% more energy to produce than a comparable foam cup. www.dart.biz

Apart from inspiring guilt pangs about the rather excellent hookTURN reusable coffee silicone cup I really need to start using again, this little message exemplifies a rather common modern dilemma. Sometimes, in that instant of decision, it’s hard to be as informed as we would like to be about the particular production and energy characteristics of everyday products, services and activities. Just been to a public bathroom? Is it more environmentally friendly to dry your hands using an electric dryer or to use a paper towel? Is recycling that heavy duty plastic container really going to be “greener” than consigning it to landfill, or finding a way to re-use it? In the coffee cup example, conventional wisdom implies that “styrofoam” is one of those ugly, ubiquitous, mass-produced products that is difficult to dispose of and bad for the environment. Clearly in some respects, however, it still may be “greener” than other more fashionable materials.

This problem is particularly apparent in the supermarket, where one is confronted with an often bewildering array of options for even the simplest of product purchases. The three strongest purchase decision determinants for the average supermarket shopper are probably price, branding and for food, the nutritional information printed on the packaging – but I am sure a lot of modern shoppers also consider “green” metrics like the amount and type of product packaging, where the product came from, and the amount of energy they think was used to produce the product. The reckoning process can quite obviously end up being maniacally complex. Even assuming the perceived quality of the actual products are the same (which it often isn’t), our poor average shopper is inevitably forced into making a “least worst” decision. Should we buy the cheap tin of tuna from fish farmed in the other side of the world, the expensive one farmed locally and sustainably, or a mid-range option that just happens to be excessively packaged or produced by a company renowned for dubious ecological practices?

Here in the United Kingdom a rather handy “stoplight” nutritional label tends to be printed on food packaging, indicating what proportion of an adult’s recommended intake of calories, fat, salt, sugar and saturates the product has.

Each pudding contains calories (315, 16%), sugar (40g, 44%), fat (6.1g, 9%), saturates (1.7g, 9%), salt (0.3g, 5%).

I don’t see why an analogous “ecological” label system shouldn’t be developed, indicating (for example) the estimated amount of carbon used to produce the product, a packaging rating indicating the type and amount of packaging the product has, and a sustainability rating indicating to what extent sustainable practices were used in production. One could argue that this would create a bureaucratic nightmare for businesses, especially small and boutique producers. On the other hand, it would also place more power in the hands of consumers, and create a natural market incentive for businesses to keep searching for ways to produce their goods and services in an ultimately “greener” way. And wouldn’t that be a good thing?