Students at Southern Cross University want to know if you would change your shopping choices after learning about the carbon footprint of the products you are buying.

So they are putting consumers to the test in an Australia-first experiment being conducted at an East Ballina supermarket on Monday, August 25.

Final year students from the School of Environmental Science and Management have designed carbon footprint labels for a range of commonly purchased household grocery items, including bread, milk, butter, bottled water and pet food.

They will label selected foods at the Foodworks store, Shop 1, Links Avenue, East Ballina, on Monday morning and monitor results closely over the next month, before analysing the data to determine if consumer behaviour has changed.

Data will be compared with the sales records of these same items from the previous month, when no labels were in place, with co-operation and support from Foodworld manager, John Shortiss and his staff.

The students’ mentor, Professor Jerry Vanclay, head of the School of Environmental Science and Management at the University, said there was a growing awareness of the threat of climate change and the role of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in forcing climate change, but many of us wondered what we personally could do to change things.

“One of the most important things we can do is to change our shopping habits, because in an average household, shopping accounts for over half of all household greenhouse emissions. It is not always easy to work out how to shop smarter, and this new research by our students will make this easier, and test consumer response to labelling,” Professor Vanclay said.

“To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this research has been undertaken in Australia.”

On Monday morning SCU students will put labels on selected lines of grocery items at the Foodworks store.

The labels indicate if manufacture and transport of a product has a lower (green label), medium (yellow label) or higher (black label) carbon footprint, so that consumers can make an informed choice in their shopping. The labels will remain in the store for a month.

Why label? Professor Vanclay explains: “Despite general concern about climate change, and the role of shopping in household carbon budgets, there is little information to assist households or policymakers make better decisions.

“This research project has two aims: to provide information for customers, and to measure if and how customers change their purchasing behaviour. Students will examine sales data during the four weeks before and after labelling to see if consumers change their behaviour, and results will be published in a scientific journal.

“As this is a research project, and not a full rollout of carbon labels, we looked for a store where we were welcomed and assisted in our research, where the task was manageable (in terms of product range), and where the issue was relevant. For example, this Foodworks store is not far above the current sea-level.”

Asked what consumers could do if their favourite product had a black label (signifying higher carbon emissions), Professor Vanclay said: “Our labels indicate carbon emissions up to the time of sale. Obviously, it is preferable to use a product with lower emissions, but after-sale behaviour can make a big difference to the whole-of-life greenhouse footprint.

“Your decision to drive or walk to the store, to make a special trip or to combine shopping with other errands, to bring your own bag, and to dispose of or recycle containers, will all make a difference to the overall emission burden.

“If you prefer a black-label product, you can compensate in other ways, but if you have no particular preference, do something good for the environment, and buy a product with a smaller footprint.”

One of the student researchers, Mark Stewart, said the ‘carbon footprint’ was the carbon and the carbon energy used in producing, packaging, transporting and storing a product before it is purchased by the shopper.

“The aim of the study is to find out if knowing the carbon footprint of a product will influence shoppers towards the purchasing of carbon-friendly products,” he said.

“As a class, our first task has been to painstakingly determine the ‘carbon footprint’ of each of the selected products to be used in the study. Products where compared against similar products in the same product line and categorised as having either a low, medium or high carbon footprint, with a high carbon footprint having the most carbon and therefore having the greatest impact on our Earth’s climate.

“Labels were then designed to advise the shopper of the carbon footprint. A brief but exciting information leaflet has been produced by the students to inform customers of what all the fuss is about.”