Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

0809 PD: Footprints on the carton

Published on 18 May 2009

I recently read an article in Inc. magazine which reviewed the business plan for a business marketing itself as an “environmentally friendly” dry cleaner.

The article included reviews from seasoned investors who were reviewing the business’ potential for outside funding and future growth. CMEA Ventures Senior Partner Maurice Gunderson’s comments were an epiphany to me. Gunderson compared how consumers will perceive the business to how they might review a restaurant:

“Assessing environmental impacts is very complex and expensive. This goes beyond a subjective restaurant review (‘The pasta was overcooked.’) into a much more objective scientific territory. (‘The CO2 emissions from cooking the pasta were excessive.’)”



Some industries, especially in Europe, are already tracking and labeling products based on their carbon footprint. (See for more information.) So whether or not you believe in carbon footprinting, you should understand that tabulating how much carbon we emit or reduce from emitting in production is becoming more scientifically accurate to predict. It’s not perfect, but tracking it is feasible.

We, as a dairy industry, will soon know our carbon footprint or carbon life cycle. Earlier this year more than 1,000 dairy producers throughout the country, and maybe even you, received a survey from Dairy Management Inc. (DMI) asking some questions to determine a more accurate representation of the carbon inputs and outputs of milk and dairy production. The survey answers will be confidential but will be used to help calculate more accurately the carbon footprint of milk. Research data calculating a carbon footprint exists from universities, but DMI is using this survey to gather more accurate on-farm analysis. The surveys are due back in June, and by fall we should know what the carbon footprint for milk is.

In my recent interview with DMI Vice President David Pelzer, he said our industry is doing the survey along with other efforts to carefully avoid the appearance of “greenwashing” milk and dairy products. Because producing environmentally safe products is currently an attractive marketing approach, Pelzer said our industry wants to avoid accusations of calling milk and dairy products “green” in order to look hip or chic – otherwise know as “greenwashing.” Instead, he said our industry recognizes its true and very real evidence both in on-farm milk production and at-the-plant production of a sustainable or “green” product relative to its nutrient content. The trick is in having data to back it up. This year we will have that.

If you received one of those surveys, please fill it out and return it quickly. Your responses will help us begin telling consumers with sound data about how environmentally friendly the dairy industry and its products really are. Why is that important?

I think Mr. Gunderson is on to why. Blogs, the Internet, social networking and other marketing messages bombard consumers with thousands of subjective reasons why they should buy a company’s products. (Think of the tag lines you’ve seen before like “Better tasting” or “Less filling.”) Most of these ads’ messages melt in front of scientific data that allow consumers to decide what they think is socially acceptable to them. Someday soon when we go to the grocery store to purchase eggs, bread and milk, will all the labels we’ve seen attached to food lately (organic, pasture-raised, free-range, locally grown, etc.) be trumped by one label – the number representing the grams of carbon emitted per serving or its carbon footprint?


If I’m a cost-conscious consumer and, in today’s economic environment there are many, I’m still going to look to see how many ounces or grams I’m getting for my dollar. For now, that would trump my decision to buy based on a carbon footprint value. Regardless, it’s another real number, like the nutrition facts on the back, that I would at least look at. And it’s a scientific measurement that cuts through the other subjective labels on the package or box. And one day it’s a label that may work in favor of dairy products. PD

Walt Cooley