UK to pioneer carbon footprint labelling innovation

By Kirsty Barnes

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Greenhouse gas Carbon dioxide

In a bid to push manufacturers to reduce their greenhouse gas
emissions, the UK government last week unveiled a proposal that
could pave the way for "carbon footprint" labels on products.

In the pharma industry, the initiative is particularly pertinent to over-the-counter (OTC) drug makers. The UK's Carbon Trust, along with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will now work together with BSI British Standards, the UK's national standards organisation, to develop an agreed method for the measurement of embodied greenhouse gases (GHGs), that can be applied across a wide range of product and service categories and their supply chains. The aim of the work is to enable companies to measure the GHG-related impacts of their products and services and ultimately reduce them. The benchmark method will be based on a pilot scheme run by the Carbon Trust and currently being tested by Boots, Walkers and Innocent Smoothies. The single standard will ensure a consistent and comparable approach to supply chain measurement of greenhouse gas emissions across markets and would be the first step in moving towards an internationally agreed standard for measuring embodied GHGs, Defra stated. "The products that businesses make, buy and sell have an impact, both on climate change and the wider environment, at all stages from raw material to when the product is no longer required. These are created by the energy and other resources used, and the resulting emissions, in areas like production, transport and use of products as well as waste from packaging and discarded products,"​ said the UK's environment minister, Ian Pearson. "More and more, businesses are looking for ways to reduce their impact on the environment,"​ he said. "To help them achieve that we need a reliable, consistent way to measure these impacts that businesses recognise, trust and understand." ​Once the standard is in place, in about 18 months time, manufacturers across all industries will be able to sign up to a voluntary labelling scheme, where products will display labels showing a figure representing the greenhouse gas emissions created by their production, transport and eventual disposal, similar to the calorie or salt content figures on food packaging. The carbon footprint figure will be independently certified to ensure that manufacturers have accurately followed the established measurement methodology when calculating the figure, a spokesperson from The Carbon Trust told The pharmaceutical industry is one of many which has been witnessing a dramatic shift towards globalisation of late, where outsourcing all kinds of different elements of pharmaceutical research, development and manufacturing to an increasing number of destinations around the world, from India to China to South America is a growing trend - and one which has the potential to negatively impact the environment. For example, a recent article published in the March 31 issue of the British Medical Journal​ suggested that while clinical trials are saving lives they may be killing the environment due to their 'intensive energy use'​ and 'substantial contribution to greenhouse gasses.'​ During a one year audit period of a sample clinical trial, the total emission of greenhouse gasses related to the trial was 126 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CDEs) - an amount that corresponds to that produced by 32 people in one year on the basis of global per capita estimates, said the researchers. For the entire five-year duration of the sample trial, about 630 tonnes of CDEs were produced - an amount that is equivalent to 525 round trips flights from London to New York for one passenger, the researchers said. Energy use in clinical research premises and trial-related air travel were identified as the biggest culprits. The UK proposal on carbon labelling is part of a wider government plan to reduce the environmental impact of doing business on such a global scale, although in the pharmaceutical industry, it will only realistically be relevant to OTC medicines and perhaps generics prescription drugs, where customers have more say in the choice of brand they buy compared with branded prescription medications. Boots, the UK's largest pharmacy retail chain, who is part of the Carbon Trust's pilot trial, said it has managed to reduce the carbon footprint for the two shampoo products involved in the trial by 25 per cent by "changing a lot of little things"​ and it eventually plans to have all 30,000 own-brand products adhering to the scheme, including its OTC medicines. "Every part of everything we do, from ingredients, manufacturing and packaging, to distribution and energy consumption at our facilities, has a carbon footprint and can be reviewed,"​ company spokesperson Richard Ellis told, although, he was not prepared to make such a statement in regard to timelines. "Tesco has said it wants to have 70,000 of its products with carbon footprint labels within one year although given our experience and knowledge in what is involved we believe this is unrealistic,"​ he said. According to Ellis, it has taken five Boots staff working for three months to reduce the carbon footprint on two of its shampoo products, so it is a "very time consuming and costly process,"​ although he would not comment on how costly. Despite the effort involved, Ellis said that regardless of company size, it was worth it for firms to work out processes to reduce the carbon footprint for all their products as "carbon equates to cost,"​ so any carbon cutbacks will ultimately save money in the long run. "We have a commitment to reducing the carbon footprint of our products and ultimately want to have a carbon label on our products that actually means something to the consumer. We are waiting for the research and feedback from the pilot before we know what will be involved,"​ he said. "The process that we have undertaken with the pilot so far has been very useful in understanding how we can reduce our carbon footprint, from the cradle to the cradle (i.e. involving everything from ingredients to recycling) as opposed to cradle to the grave (no recycling) so in the meantime we will be taking the things we have learnt so far and apply them across the board as much as possible."​ Meanwhile, the initiative is still in its early stages and when asked to comment, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry told "We have heard about the initiative although we have not been approached by the government on this issue and have nothing further to comment at this stage."​ Nobody from either the Processing and Packaging Machinery Association (PPMA), the Proprietary Association of Great Britain (PAGB) - the trade association for manufacturers of OTC medicines - GlaxoSmithKline or Janssen-Cilag was available for comment prior to publishing. However, a spokesperson from AstraZeneca told "In general we are in favour of providing consumers with information that enables them to make informed choices and carbon footprint information could be useful in this context." "AstraZeneca does not produce OTCs where such information might be directly useful to the consumer in informing their choice, although it is doubtful whether there would be much difference in carbon footprint at the level of the individual product pack." ​ The firm indicated that such an initiative would be less relevant for prescription drugs such as the ones it produces because they are prescribed to the patient by a physician, without any direct consumer choice being involved. In addition, the packaging and labelling of prescription drugs is heavily constrained by regulation, the company said. Furthermore, AstraZeneca also pointed out that there are also some complexities about describing the carbon footprint of an individual prescription drug: "for example where should the footprint boundary be drawn in relation to the R&D effort expended to bring this new drug to market, considering that during its patent life the footprint will be dominated by this activity, whereas when the drug becomes generic its footprint is determined primarily by its manufacture and distribution."

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