What are we really buying when we buy a product?

Imagine you’re on holiday and in a gift shop. You pick up an item. Let’s say it’s a rug and it looks like the coat of a leopard but you’re not sure. You don’t want to purchase it if it is, so you wander further through the aisles and see a shiny ornament, one that’s been painted. It feels heavy, but it’s not plastic or metal. Maybe it’s made from clay but again you’re not sure. You want to do the right thing by reducing the effects of your choices on the environment and other life forms, but there isn’t always enough information at the point of sale to help. There isn’t a product footprint label.

Contrast this with when you’re out food shopping for healthy options. You can pick up a food product to check its health-related label. If it has too much fat or sugar or salt, you can put it down and pick something else. We have a myriad of other classifications and ratings to help with other types of decisions. If you’re buying a car in the EU, you can check its NCAP safety rating or if you’re doing the laundry, you can check the wash-care label for the correct cycle.

Chains of cause and effect are everywhere. When we drive fossil fuel-driven cars, we pollute the air and contribute to chemical changes in the Earth’s atmosphere. When we buy ornaments made from ivory, poachers slaughter elephants. When we demand mahogany and purchase palm oil-based products, we contribute to deforestation, which can strip the world of areas rich in biodiversity.

What if we could highlight these effects at the point of sale, through another type of label, a product footprint label, one that describes the resources such as the raw materials or labour used to create the associated product? A label required by law and described by a set of cards attached to the product, whether in a retail shop or online. If they were available, would you act on them?

Is this made from leopard skin?

Image of a leopard looking at the camera
Nick Fewings

Return to the gift shop again, pick up that fur rug and look at a product footprint label. Imagine what that label might be. The topmost card of the label shows a summary of what was used to create the product. For this item, the rug, the header of the topmost card is coloured red alerting you to the contents of the label. Underneath this header are rows each containing a number followed by a symbol. On this particular card, the first row is in red, the rest of the rows are neutral white. The red row shows a ‘1’ followed by an animal symbol. The other rows show various other symbols representing the other ‘materials’ or ‘inputs’ used to create the product.

Each red row from the first card is shown in more detail on a subsequent card. For this item, there’s one red row so there’s one subsequent detail card. On this second card, the header is also in red, showing ‘1’ again, but this time instead of the animal symbol, the detail is showing a leopard symbol. There’s a bar code on the card. You scan it on your phone.

You’re brought to a website. The top section shows the raw materials used to create the product, those in red showing first; hence the topmost raw material listed is fur and you see it’s from an Amur leopard. As it’s an animal, there’s a link to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species1, which shows its conservation status, in this case, Critically Endangered2. Thus, there is no confusion anymore. The item you’re holding contains fur from an Amur leopard.

On the website within each raw material comprising the product, there’s also a link showing the registered address and contact details for the full supply chain, from the retailer, in whose shop you’re standing (or browsing online), back to the wholesalers and manufacturers. Thus, you can also see which part of the world the leopard came from and which businesses were involved in getting the product into your hand.

You flip back to the product footprint label’s third card. It shows the retail price.

Or is this made from ivory?

Image of an elephant's ivory tusk
Pawan Sharma

You walk over to another product. It’s that shiny ornament you noticed earlier. The topmost card on the product footprint label is red with a ‘1’ followed by an animal symbol. The second card this time shows an elephant symbol and on scanning the bar code you see the topmost raw material listed is ivory from an African elephant, in this case, the Savannah sub-species. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species link is available again as is the list of registered addresses and contact details for the businesses along the supply chain, allowing you to see which part of the world the elephant came from and which businesses were involved in getting the ornament into your hand.

There is no uncertainty over what the ornament is made from anymore. The item you’re holding is not made of clay but comprises ivory from an African elephant. With this extra information to hand you decide whether to purchase.

Was child labour used?

Image of a girl playing on a play-horse
Ivan Stern

You leave the gift shop and enter a sports shop. You pick up a pair of running shoes. The header on the topmost card of the label is red. It has eight rows beneath it, the first two of which are red. The first row contains a ‘4’ followed by a human symbol. The second row shows a ‘1’ followed by an animal symbol. As there are two rows in red, there are two subsequent detail cards.

You flip to the next card and see the ‘4’ now followed by a child symbol. You scan the code. You see the pair of running shoes in your hand was partly made using four hours’ child labour and you can see the registered address of the business using child labour as part of the manufacturing process. You also see the registered addresses of all other businesses on the supply chain, so you know those businesses are also aware children have been used to make the product.

You flip to the next card on the label, which shows the details for the second red row on the topmost card. Again, you can read the details of where this raw material, in this case, leather, was sourced, the animals involved and the list of registered business addresses associated with supplying it. After making your decision on whether you want to purchase the running shoes, you leave the sports shop.

What about a sustainable forest?

Image of a forest with trees cut down
Massimo Rivenci

You continue walking through the streets. Perhaps you spot a mahogany dining table in the window of a furniture shop. You head inside and check the footprint label. The header on the topmost card is red. It has ten rows beneath it, the first three of which are red. The first row shows ’10,000’ followed by a forest symbol, the second row shows ‘1’ followed by a ‘H’ symbol while the third row shows ‘1’ followed by a ‘BD’ symbol.

You flip to the second card and scan the code. The information on this occasion shows ten thousand hectares of forests were cut down by the manufacturing businesses in the supply chain in the last year. It also highlights the ecosystems affected by this deforestation—the animals, birds and insects and other life that live in those ecosystems. The details of all the registered businesses in the supply chain are again displayed.

You flip to the next card and scan the code. You read how a world heritage site—related to the ‘H’ symbol—has been affected by the manufacturing activities of one of the businesses in the supply chain.

You flip to the next card and scan the code. You read how one of the sites marked as an area rich in biodiversity—related to the ‘BD’ symbol—has been affected by another of the manufacturing activities of one of the businesses in the supply chain.

You walk through the shop and check another product, an oak dining set this time. The topmost card is green and the topmost row is green, showing ‘0’ followed by a forest symbol. You scan the code on the second card and see the oak is coming from a sustainable forest development. The ‘0’ denotes the same number of hectares used by the manufacturing businesses in the supply chain was replaced, meaning a net sum of zero hectares were cut down.

Although this oak product has a green product footprint label, you notice one of the businesses in the supply chain is marked red. You read why. It supplies another product that’s marked red. That product affects an area rich in biodiversity.

What are labour conditions like? And price margins?

Christopher Burns

The information on the label doesn’t have to stop there. Have you ever wondered how much margin is made on every product you purchase? Ever wondered if a section of the supply chain is getting a raw deal? The price card on the product label could include more details depending on the type of product, such as the margin or the wholesale price. Remember that shiny new toy in the toy department with the exorbitant cost? Check out the margin or the wholesale price to see if you’re being ripped off.

Additionally, have you ever wondered about general working conditions along the supply chain for a particular product? What if a product footprint label also shows red when working conditions in a factory that makes the product (or parts of the product) are deemed bad enough to warrant the red category?3 Would that affect the demand for the product? These and any other items we wish to highlight could be added to a label of our choosing.


We have complex systems in place for many things already where the motivation exists to direct consumer demand and make consumers more knowledgeable. There’s no reason why the same cannot be done here. We have a substantial body of work that could be used as input to other types of meta-data. Perhaps we can create a new type of label from this conglomeration of information. Perhaps we can create a version of a product footprint label as outlined above.

For further details on potential informational inputs to such a label, check out the appendix and bibliography below.

Appendix A: Product Footprint label inputs

Enumeration of Earth’s natural resources

We have extensive modelling and classification systems which contribute to our global ecological models from research presented by government departments, universities and agencies worldwide. These have:

  • documented Earth’s atmosphere and structure, its chemical composition, temperature, water levels, ice-coverage, weather make-up, ocean current systems and wind direction systems
  • enumerated the different climate zones and weather systems
  • estimated the human population for every region on Earth and how much the Earth could support based on first or third world footprints
  • estimated other life form populations for every region including water enumerating for example the diversity of species in our corals, how corals have changed over time and those that are at risk
  • documented land usage by creating:
    • maps denoting where mining takes place and have projected reserves of organic material
    • maps of forests and their associated biodiversity
    • maps of the world’s marine protected areas
    • maps of freshwater supplies and risks to those supplies

In addition, these sources of information have been combined to show where there are risks to land, water, air, life (both human and non-human), organic and mineral resources and anything else considered valuable to the environment and sustainable human needs. This research is also available for use in other systems such as product footprint labels.

Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs)

Extensive research assessing the environmental impact of products has been conducted since the introduction of the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) concept for products in the 1960s. This led to international standards and reports thereon:

  • International Standards Organisation (ISO) standards on environmental management—life cycle assessments: ISO 140404, ISO 140415, ISO 140426, ISO 140437, ISO 140448
  • Reports on life cycle assessments (LCAs) such as:
    • Fifteen years of ISO 14040: a review9
    • Life Cycle Assessment: Past, Present and Future10

Life Cycle Sustainability Assessments (LCSAs)

Research evolved from LCAs into the broader Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA) concept:

  • Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment (LCSA) from the Life Cycle Initiative11
  • Reports on LCSA such as:
    • Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment12
    • Towards Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment13
    • A Revision of What Life Cycle Sustainability Assessment Should Entail: Towards Modeling the Net Impact on Human Well-Being14

These models attempt to determine the environmental, economic and social impacts of the full life cycle of a product.

See the bibliography for further sample resources.

Subsequent notes

UPDATE: February 2020

Quorn is introducing carbon labelling on its food products this year (2020)15, while other well-known companies are considering these labels too16. Although the broader product footprint label mentioned in this article is not in use, carbon footprint labels have been used in varying degrees for some time under various certification schemes, despite the ongoing challenges producing accurate data for these labels. However, with the growing availability of underlying footprint data along the supply chain, labels, once too time-consuming to deliver, such as Tesco’s attempts almost a decade ago17, continue to become more feasible and hopefully, in time, broader in scope.


1 https://www.iucn.org/resources/conservation-tools/iucn-red-list-threatened-species

2 https://www.iucnredlist.org/resources/categories-and-criteria

3 https://www.forbes.com/sites/hbsworkingknowledge/2016/09/12/how-big-brands-should-monitor-factory-conditions-in-their-supply-chains/

4 https://www.iso.org/standard/37456.html

5 https://www.iso.org/standard/23152.html

6 https://www.iso.org/standard/23153.html

7 https://www.iso.org/standard/23154.html

8 https://www.iso.org/standard/38498.html

9 https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959652613003764

10 https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es101316v

11 https://www.lifecycleinitiative.org/starting-life-cycle-thinking/life-cycle-approaches/life-cycle-sustainability-assessment/

12 https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/engineering/life-cycle-sustainability-assessment

13 https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/2/10/3309/htm

14 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jiec.12653

15 https://www.wired.co.uk/article/carbon-labelling-quorn

16 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2019/12/21/food-labels-include-carbon-footprint-first-time-plans-considered/

17 https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/jan/30/tesco-drops-carbon-labelling


Arbault D, R. M.-B. (2014). Integrated earth system dynamic modeling for life cycle impact assessment of ecosystem services. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24291626?dopt=Abstract

C. J. Vörösmarty, P. B. (2010, September 30). Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from Nature: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature09440.epdf

European Commission. (n.d.). The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/biodiversity/economics/index_en.htm

FHI 360-UWA. (2017). What drives demand for wildlife? A situational analysis of consumer demand for wildlife parts and products in China, Thailand and Vietnam based on a literature review (elephant, pangolin, rhino, tiger). Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from The U.S. Agency for International Development, Wildlife Asia: https://www.usaidwildlifeasia.org//resources/reports/what-drives-demand-for-wildlife

H. U. Sverdrup, M. W. (1942). The Oceans Their Physics, Chemistry, and General Biology, Classification of the Marine Environment. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from University of Calafornia Press: https://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=kt167nb66r&chunk.id=d3_3_ch08&toc.depth=1&toc.id=ch08&brand=eschol

IPBES. (2020). IPBES rolling work programme up to 2030. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES): https://ipbes.net/work-programme

IPCC. (2020). IPCC: About. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: https://www.ipcc.ch/about/

IUCN. (2020). Conservation Tools. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from International Union for Conservation of Nature: https://www.iucn.org/resources/conservation-tools/

MCS. (2020). MCS: Who we are. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from Marine Conservation Society: https://www.mcsuk.org/who-we-are/

Nuwer, R. (2018, November 19). The Key to Stopping the Illegal Wildlife Trade: China. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/19/science/wildlife-trafficking-china.html

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and Earthscan. (2011). The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture, Managing systems at risk. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from Food and Agricultural Organisation, United Nations: http://www.fao.org/3/a-i1688e.pdf

U.S. Federal Government. (2018). Multiscale Integrated Models of Ecosystem Services (MIMES) model. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit: https://toolkit.climate.gov/tool/multiscale-integrated-earth-systems-model-mimes-0

UNESCO. (2020). List of World Heritage in Danger. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from UNESCO: https://whc.unesco.org/en/danger/

UNESCO. (2020). World Heritage List. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from UNESCO: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/

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United Nations. (2020). Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from United Nations: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/post2015/transformingourworld

Yude Pan, R. A. (2013, October 9). The Structure, Distribution,and Biomass of the World’s Forests. Retrieved Feb 10, 2020, from North Central Research Station (USDA Forest Service): https://www.ncrs.fs.fed.us/pubs/jrnl/2013/nrs_2013_pan_001.pdf

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