Carbon labelling systems can inform individual and organizational choices, which potentially reduce the carbon footprints of goods and services. We review the ways labelling is conceptualized and operationalized, and the available evidence on effectiveness. The literature focuses mainly on how labelling affects retail consumer behaviour, but much less on how labelling affects the behaviour of the organizations that produce, transport and sell products despite preliminary research suggesting that the effects on corporate behaviour may be substantial even without strong consumer responses. We consider key challenges for carbon labelling systems related to standard setting, data collection and use, and label design. We summarize the available knowledge, identify key research questions and identify steps towards achieving the promise of carbon labelling.
This is a preview of subscription content
Subscribe to Nature+
Get immediate online access to the entire Nature family of 50+ journals
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $8.25 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Emissions Gap Report 2020 (UNEP, 2020); https://www.unep.org/emissions-gap-report-2020
Vandenbergh, M. P., Dietz, T. & Stern, P. C. Time to try carbon labelling. Nat. Clim. Change 1, 4–6 (2011).
Nielsen, K. S. et al. Improving climate change mitigation analysis: a framework for examining feasibility. One Earth 3, 325–336 (2020).
Goulder, L. H. Timing is everything: how economists can better address the urgency of stronger climate policy. Rev. Environ. Econ. Policy 14, 143–156 (2020).
Vandenbergh, M. P. & Gilligan, J. M. Beyond Politics (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2017).
Peng, W. et al. Climate policy models need to get real about people—here’s how. Nature 594, 174–176 (2021).
Dietz, T., Gardner, G. T., Gilligan, J., Stern, P. C. & Vandenbergh, M. P. Household actions can provide a behavioral wedge to rapidly reduce US carbon emissions. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 106, 18452–18456 (2009).
Feucht, Y. & Zander, K. Consumers’ preferences for carbon labels and the underlying reasoning. A mixed methods approach in 6 European countries. J. Clean. Prod. 178, 740–748 (2018).
Gardner, G. T. & Stern, P. C. Environmental Problems and Human Behavior (Allyn & Bacon, 1996).
Meyerding, S. G. H., Schaffmann, A. L. & Lehberger, M. Consumer preferences for different designs of carbon footprint labelling on tomatoes in Germany–does design matter? Sustainability 11, 1587 (2019).
Stern, P. C. et al. The effectiveness of incentives for residential energy conservation. Eval. Rev. 10, 147–176 (1986).
Wolske, K. S. & Stern, P. C. in Psychology and Climate Change (eds Clayton, S. & Manning, C.) 127–160 (Academic, 2018).
Attari, S. Z., Dekay, M. L., Davidson, C. I., Bruine, W. & Bruin, D. Public perceptions of energy consumption and savings. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 107, 16054–16059 (2010).
Camilleri, A. R., Larrick, R. P., Hossain, S. & Patino-Echeverri, D. Consumers underestimate the emissions associated with food but are aided by labels. Nat. Clim. Change 9, 53–58 (2019).
Marghetis, T., Attari, S. Z. & Landy, D. Simple interventions can correct misperceptions of home energy use. Nat. Energy 10, 874–881 (2019).
Kantenbacher, J. & Attari, S. Z. Better rules for judging joules: exploring how experts make decisions about household energy use. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 73, 101911 (2021).
Rosa, E. A. et al. Nuclear waste: knowledge waste? Science 329, 762–763 (2010).
Anderson, K. & Peters, G. P. The trouble with negative emissions. Science 354, 182–183 (2016).
Creutzig, F. et al. Considering sustainability thresholds for BECCS in IPCC and biodiversity assessments. GCB Bioenergy 13, 510–515 (2021).
Carton, W., Asiyanbi, A. P., Beck, S., Buck, H. J. & Lund, J. F. Negative emissions and the long history of carbon removal. WIREs Clim. Change e671, 1–25 (2020).
Torma, G. & Thøgersen, J. A systematic literature review on meta sustainability labeling—what do we (not) know? J. Clean. Prod. 23, 126194 (2021).
Sarti, S., Darnall, N. & Testa, F. Market segmentation of consumers based on their actual sustainability and health-related purchases. J. Clean. Prod. 192, 270–280 (2018).
Schuitema, G., Aravena, C. & Denny, E. The psychology of energy efficiency labels: trust, involvement, and attitudes towards energy performance certificates in Ireland. Energy Res. Soc. Sci. 59, 101301 (2020).
Brécard, D. Consumer confusion over the profusion of eco-labels: lessons from a double differentiation model. Resour. Energy Econ. 37, 64–84 (2014).
Janßen, D. & Langen, N. The bunch of sustainability labels—do consumers differentiate? J. Clean. Prod. 143, 1233–1245 (2017).
Bullock, G. Independent labels? The power behind environmental information about products and companies. Polit. Res. Q. 68, 46–62 (2015).
Shwom, R. L. in The Politics of Energy (ed. Vanderheiden, S.) 107–128 (Routledge, 2013).
Darnall, N., Ji, H. & Potoski, M. Institutional design of ecolabels: sponsorship signals rule strength. Regul. Gov. 11, 438–450 (2017).
Bullock, G. Green Grades: Can Information Save the Earth? (MIT Press, 2017).
York, J. G., Vedula, S. & Lenox, M. J. It’s not easy building green: the impact of public policy, private actors, and regional logics on voluntary standards adoption. Acad. Manag. J. 61, 1492–1523 (2018).
Liu, T., Wang, Q. & Su, B. A review of carbon labeling: standards, implementation, and impact. Renew. Sustain. Energy Rev. 53, 68–79 (2016).
Product Carbon Footprint Label (Carbon Trust, 2021); https://www.carbontrust.com/what-we-do/assurance-and-certification/product-carbon-footprint-label
Matisoff, D. C., Noonan, D. S. & Mazzolini, A. M. Performance or marketing benefits? The case of LEED certification. Environ. Sci. Technol. 48, 2001–2007 (2014).
Gadema, Z. & Oglethorpe, D. The use and usefulness of carbon labelling food: a policy perspective from a survey of UK supermarket shoppers. Food Policy 36, 815–822 (2011).
Thøgersen, J. & Nielsen, K. S. A better carbon footprint label. J. Clean. Prod. 125, 86–94 (2016).
Marteau, T. M. Towards environmentally sustainable human behaviour: targeting non-conscious and conscious processes for effective and acceptable policies. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A 375, 20160371 (2017).
Hollands, G. J. et al. The TIPPME intervention typology for changing environments to change behaviour. Nat. Hum. Behav. 1, 1040 (2017).
Eijgelaar, E., Nawijn, J., Barten, C., Okuhn, L. & Dijkstra, L. Consumer attitudes and preferences on holiday carbon footprint information in the Netherlands. J. Sustain. Tour. 24, 398–411 (2016).
Kortelainen, M., Raychaudhuri, J. & Roussillon, B. Effects of carbon reduction labels: evidence from scanner data. Econ. Inq. 54, 1167–1187 (2016).
Cohen, M. A. & Viscusi, W. K. The role of information disclosure in climate mitigation policy. Clim. Change Econ. 3, 1250020 (2012).
Plambeck, E. L. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through operations and supply chain management. Energy Econ. 34, S64–S74 (2012).
Darnall, N. & Aragón-Correa, J. A. Can ecolabels influence firms’ sustainability strategy and stakeholder behavior? Organ. Environ. 27, 319–327 (2014).
Boardman, B. Carbon labelling: too complex or will it transform our buying? Significance 5, 168–171 (2008).
Schaefer, F. & Blanke, M. Opportunities and challenges of carbon footprint, climate or CO2 labelling for horticultural products. Erwerbs-Obstbau 56, 73–80 (2014).
Vaughan, A. Tesco drops carbon-label pledge. The Guardian (30 January 2012); https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jan/30/tesco-drops-carbon-labelling
Zhao, R., Wu, D. & Patti, S. A bibliometric analysis of carbon labeling schemes in the period 2007–2019. Energies 13, 4233 (2020).
Wu, P., Xia, B. & Zuo, J. Achieving transparency in carbon labelling for construction materials—lessons from current assessment standards and carbon labels. Environ. Sci. Policy 44, 11–25 (2014).
Gössling, S. & Buckley, R. Carbon labels in tourism: persuasive communication? J. Clean. Prod. 111, 358–369 (2016).
Haq, G. & Weiss, M. CO2 labelling of passenger cars in Europe: status, challenges, and future prospects. Energy Policy 95, 324–335 (2016).
Andor, M. A., Gerster, A. & Götte, L. How effective is the European Union energy label? Evidence from a real-stakes experiment. Environ. Res. Lett. 14, 044001 (2019).
Shewmake, S., Cohen, M. A., Stern, P. C. & Vandenbergh, M. P. in Handbook of Research on Sustainable Consumption (eds Reisch, L. A. & Thøgersen, J.) 285–299 (Edward Elgar, 2015).
Holtermans, R. & Kok, N. On the value of environmental certification in the commercial real estate market. Real. Estate Econ. 47, 685–722 (2019).
Europeans’ Attitudes on EU Energy Policy (European Commission, 2019); https://op.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/b891cfb7-d50f-11e9-b4bf-01aa75ed71a1
Cornall, J. Foundation Earth project to debut environmental scores on food labels. Dairy Reporter (29 June 2021); https://www.dairyreporter.com/Article/2021/06/29/Foundation-Earth-project-to-launch-environmental-scores-on-food-products
Iqbal, N. Traffic-light system of ‘eco-scores’ to be piloted on British food labels. The Guardian (27 June 2021); https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jun/27/traffic-light-system-of-eco-scores-to-be-piloted-on-british-food-labels
Recommendations of Specifications, Standards, and Ecolabels for Federal Purchasing (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2021); https://www.epa.gov/greenerproducts/epas-recommendations-specifications-standards-and-ecolabels-federal-purchasing-pdf
Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad (US Government Publishing Office, 2021); https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2021/01/27/executive-order-on-tackling-the-climate-crisis-at-home-and-abroad/
Isley, S. C., Stern, P. C., Carmichael, S. P., Joseph, K. M. & Arent, D. J. Online purchasing creates opportunities to lower the life cycle carbon footprints of consumer products. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 113, 9780–9785 (2016).
Liu, K.-H., Chang, S.-F., Huang, W.-H. & Lu, I.-C. in Technologies and Eco-innovation towards Sustainability I (eds Hu, A. H., Matsumoto, M., Kuo, T. C. & Smith, S.) 15–22 (Springer, 2019).
Potter, C. et al. The effects of environmental sustainability labels on selection, purchase, and consumption of food and drink products: a systematic review. Environ. Behav. 53, 891–925 (2021).
Brunner, F., Kurz, V., Bryngelsson, D. & Hedenus, F. Carbon label at a university restaurant—label implementation and evaluation. Ecol. Econ. 146, 658–667 (2018).
Visschers, V. H. M. & Siegrist, M. Does better for the environment mean less tasty? Offering more climate-friendly meals is good for the environment and customer satisfaction. Appetite 95, 475–483 (2015).
Koistinen, L. et al. The impact of fat content, production methods and carbon footprint information on consumer preferences for minced meat. Food Qual. Prefer. 29, 126–136 (2013).
Echeverría, R., Moreira, V. H., Sepúlveda, C. & Wittwer, C. Willingness to pay for carbon footprint on foods. Br. Food J. 116, 186–196 (2014).
Choisdealbha, A. N., Timmons, S. & Lunn, P. D. Experimental evidence for the effects of emissions charges and efficiency information on consumer car choices. J. Clean. Prod. 254, 120140 (2020).
Slapø, H. B. & Karevold, K. I. Simple eco-labels to nudge customers toward the most environmentally friendly warm dishes: an empirical study in a cafeteria setting. Front. Sustain. Food Syst. 3, 40 (2019).
Meyerding, S. G. H. Consumer preferences for food labels on tomatoes in Germany—a comparison of a quasi-experiment and two stated preference approaches. Appetite 103, 105–112 (2016).
Hornibrook, S., May, C. & Fearne, A. Sustainable development and the consumer: exploring the role of carbon labelling in retail supply chains. Bus. Strategy Environ. 24, 266–276 (2015).
Sammer, K. & Wüstenhagen, R. The influence of eco-labelling on consumer behaviour—results of a discrete choice analysis for washing machines. Bus. Strategy Environ. 15, 185–199 (2006).
Newell, R. G. & Siikamäki, J. Nudging energy efficiency behavior: the role of information labels. J. Assoc. Environ. Resour. Econ. 1, 555–598 (2014).
Stadelmann, M. & Schubert, R. How do different designs of energy labels influence purchases of household appliances? A field study in Switzerland. Ecol. Econ. 144, 112–123 (2018).
Carrero, I., Valor, C., Estela, D. & Labajo, V. Designed to be noticed: a reconceptualization of carbon food labels as warning labels. Sustainability 13, 1581 (2021).
Babakhani, N., Lee, A. & Dolnicar, S. Carbon labels on restaurant menus: do people pay attention to them? J. Sustain. Tour. 28, 51–68 (2020).
Sharp, A. & Wheeler, M. Reducing householders’ grocery carbon emissions: carbon literacy and carbon label preferences. Australas. Mark. J. 21, 240–249 (2013).
Osman, M. & Thornton, K. Traffic light labelling of meals to promote sustainable consumption and healthy eating. Appetite 138, 60–71 (2019).
Panzone, L. A., Sniehotta, F. F., Comber, R. & Lemke, F. The effect of traffic-light labels and time pressure on estimating kilocalories and carbon footprint of food. Appetite 155, 104794 (2020).
Clarke, N. et al. Impact of health warning labels on selection and consumption of food and alcohol products: systematic review with meta-analysis. Health Psychol. Rev. 15, 430–453 (2021).
Asbridge, S. C. M., Pechey, E., Marteau, T. M. & Hollands, G. J. Effects of pairing health warning labels with energy-dense snack foods on food choice and attitudes: online experimental study. Appetite 160, 105090 (2021).
Heinzle, S. L. & Wüstenhagen, R. Dynamic adjustment of eco-labeling schemes and consumer choice—the revision of the EU energy label as a missed opportunity? Bus. Strategy Environ. 21, 60–70 (2012).
Ölander, F. & Thøgersen, J. Informing versus nudging in environmental policy. J. Consum. Policy 37, 341–356 (2014).
Canavari, M. & Coderoni, S. Green marketing strategies in the dairy sector: consumer‐stated preferences for carbon footprint labels. Strategy Change 28, 233–240 (2019).
Hartikainen, H., Roininen, T., Katajajuuri, J. M. & Pulkkinen, H. Finnish consumer perceptions of carbon footprints and carbon labelling of food products. J. Clean. Prod. 73, 285–293 (2014).
Zhao, R. et al. University students’ purchase intention and willingness to pay for carbon-labeled food products: a purchase decision-making experiment. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 17, 7026 (2020).
Steg, L. Values, norms, and intrinsic motivation to act proenvironmentally. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 41, 277–292 (2016).
Van der Ven, H. Beyond Greenwash: Explaining Credibility in Transnational Eco-labeling (Oxford Univ. Press, 2019).
Kitzmueller, M. & Shimshack, J. Economic perspectives on corporate social responsibility. J. Econ. Lit. 50, 51–84 (2012).
Hoffman, A. J. & Ventresca, M. J. Organizations, Policy and the Natural Environment: Institutional and Strategic Perspectives (Stanford Univ. Press, 2002).
Sullivan, R. The management of greenhouse gas emissions in large European companies. Corp. Soc. Responsib. Environ. Manag. 16, 301–309 (2009).
Csutora, M. & Harangozo, G. Twenty years of carbon accounting and auditing—a review and outlook. Soc. Econ. 39, 459–480 (2017).
da Rosa, F. S., Lunkes, R. J. & Brizzola, M. M. B. Exploring the relationship between internal pressures, greenhouse gas management and performance of Brazilian companies. J. Clean. Prod. 212, 567–575 (2019).
Li, D., Tang, F. & Jiang, J. Does environmental management system foster corporate green innovation? The moderating effect of environmental regulation. Technol. Anal. Strategy Manag. 31, 1242–1256 (2019).
Gatzert, N. The impact of corporate reputation and reputation damaging events on financial performance: empirical evidence from the literature. Eur. Manag. J. 33, 485–499 (2015).
De la Fuente Sabaté, J. M. & de Quevedo Puente, E. Empirical analysis of the relationship between corporate reputation and financial performance: a survey of the literature. Corp. Reput. Rev. 6, 161–177 (2003).
Lee, H. L., O’Marah, K. & John, G. The Chief Supply Chain Officer Report 2012 (SCM World, 2012).
Konar, S. & Cohen, M. A. Information as regulation: the effect of community right to know laws on toxic emissions. J. Environ. Econ. Manag. 32, 109–124 (1997).
Van der Ven, H., Bernstein, S. & Hoffmann, M. Valuing the contributions of nonstate and subnational actors to climate governance. Glob. Environ. Polit. 17, 1–20 (2017).
Shwom, R. & Bruce, A. US non-governmental organizations’ cross-sectoral entrepreneurial strategies in energy efficiency. Reg. Environ. Change 18, 1309–1321 (2018).
Andonova, L. B., Hale, T. N. & Roger, C. B. National policy and transnational governance of climate change: substitutes or complements?. Int. Stud. Q. 61, 253–268 (2017).
Lambin, E. F. & Thorlakson, T. Sustainability standards: interactions between private actors, civil society, and governments. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 43, 369–393 (2018).
Marques, J. C. & Eberlein, B. Grounding transnational business governance: a political‐strategic perspective on government responses in the Global South. Regul. Gov. 15, 1229 (2021).
Cashore, B., Knudson, J. S., Moon, J. & van der Ven, H. Private authority and public policy interactions in global context: governance spheres for problem solving. Regul. Gov. 15, 1166–1182 (2021).
Condon, M. & Ignaciuk, A. Border Carbon Adjustment and International Trade: A Literature Review Working Paper 2013/06 (OECD, 2013).
De Rubens, G. Z., Noel, L. & Sovacool, B. K. Dismissive and deceptive car dealerships create barriers to electric vehicle adoption at the point of sale. Nat. Energy 3, 501–507 (2018).
Gulbrandsen, L. H. Sustainable forestry in Sweden: the effect of competition among private certification schemes. J. Environ. Dev. 14, 338–355 (2005).
Auld, G. Constructing Private Governance (Yale Univ. Press, 2014).
Grabs, J. Selling Sustainability Short?: The Private Governance of Labor and the Environment in the Coffee Sector (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2020).
Screening of websites for “greenwashing”: half of green claims lack evidence. EU Monitor (28 January 2021); https://www.eumonitor.eu/9353000/1/j9vvik7m1c3gyxp/vlfuhgbc38ut?ctx=vhsjhdfktnpb
Transparency to Transformation: A Chain Reaction (CDP, 2021); https://www.cdp.net/en/research/global-reports/transparency-to-transformation
Walmart launches Project Gigaton to reduce emissions in company’s supply chain. Walmart (19 April 2017); https://corporate.walmart.com/newsroom/2017/04/19/walmart-launches-project-gigaton-to-reduce-emissions-in-companys-supply-chain
Marcu, A., Mehling, M. & Cosbey, A. Border Carbon Adjustments in the EU: Issues and Options (ERCST, 2021); https://ercst.org/border-carbon-adjustments-in-the-eu-issues-and-options/
Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (European Commission, 2021); https://ec.europa.eu/taxation_customs/green-taxation-0/carbon-border-adjustment-mechanism_en
Tucker, T. N. & Meyer, T. A Green Steel Deal: Towards Pro-jobs, Pro-climate Trans-Atlantic Cooperation on Carbon Border Measures (Roosevelt Institute, 2021); https://rooseveltinstitute.org/publications/a-green-steel-deal-towards-pro-jobs-pro-climate-trans-atlantic-cooperation-on-carbon-border-measure/
Busch, L. Standards: Recipes for Reality (MIT Press, 2011).
National Research Council Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making (National Academies Press, 2008); https://doi.org/10.17226/12434
Henry, A. D. The challenge of learning for sustainability: a prolegomenon to theory. Hum. Ecol. Rev. 16, 131–140 (2009).
Quantifying the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of Products: PAS 2050 and the GHG Protocol Product Standard (BSi & Greenhouse Gas Protocol, 2021); https://ghgprotocol.org/sites/default/files/standards_supporting/GHG%20Protocol%20PAS%202050%20Factsheet.pdf
Cialdini, R. B. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins, 2007).
Brazil, W., Kallbekken, S., Sælen, H. & Carroll, J. The role of fuel cost information in new car sales. Transp. Res. D 74, 93–103 (2019).
Codagnone, C. et al. Labels as nudges? An experimental study of car eco-labels. Econ. Polit. 33, 403–432 (2016).
Andor, M. A., Gerster, A., Gillingham, K. T. & Horvath, M. Running a car costs much more than people think—stalling the uptake of green travel. Nature 580, 453–455 (2020).
Galarraga, I., Kallbekken, S. & Silvestri, A. Consumer purchases of energy-efficient cars: how different labelling schemes could affect consumer response to price changes. Energy Policy 137, 111181 (2020).
Hille, S. L., Geiger, C., Loock, M. & Peloza, J. Best in class or simply the best? The impact of absolute versus relative ecolabeling approaches. J. Public Policy Mark. 37, 5–22 (2018).
Grover, C., Bansal, S. & Martinez-Cruz, A. L. Influence of Social Network Effect and Incentive on Choice of Star Labeled Cars in India: a Latent Class Approach Based on Choice Experiment Discussion Paper 18–05 (Centre for International Trade and Development, 2018).
Folkvord, F. et al. The effects of ecolabels on environmentally- and health-friendly cars: an online survey and two experimental studies. Int. J. Life Cycle Assess. 25, 883–899 (2020).
Sussman, R., Kormos, C., Park, C. & Cooper, E. Energy Efficiency in Real Estate Listings: A Controlled Experiment (American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, 2020); https://www.aceee.org/research-report/b2002
Value for High-Performing Homes—Resources (Elevate, 2021); https://www.elevatenp.org/value-for-high-performing-homes-resources/
Devine, A. & Kok, N. Green certification and building performance: implications for tangibles and intangibles. J. Portf. Manag. 41, 151–163 (2015).
Asensio, O. I. & Delmas, M. A. The effectiveness of US energy efficiency building labels. Nat. Energy 2, 17033 (2017).
Brookstein, P. & Caracino, J. Making the Value Visible: A Blueprint for Transforming the High-Performing Homes Market by Showcasing Clean and Efficient Energy Improvements (Elevate Energy & Building Performance Association, 2020); https://www.elevatenp.org/wp-content/uploads/Visible-Value-Blueprint-Final.pdf
K.S.N. was funded by the Carlsberg Foundation, grant no. CF20-0285. T.D.’s contributions were supported in part by Michigan AgBio Research. M.P.V.’s contributions were supported by the Climate Change Research Network and the Vanderbilt Dean’s Fund.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information
Nature Climate Change thanks Katrina Kuh and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Taufique, K.M.R., Nielsen, K.S., Dietz, T. et al. Revisiting the promise of carbon labelling. Nat. Clim. Chang. 12, 132–140 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-021-01271-8