Can eco-ratings on food and drink packaging help improve sustainability?

A nascent labelling scheme has attracted big-name backing, but how effective will it be in reducing the industry’s carbon footprint? And will it change consumers’ behaviour significantly on its own?

Since 2013, it’s been easy for shoppers to see the fat, sugar and salt content of the foods and drinks they’re buying, thanks to the so-called traffic-light system of nutritional labelling on its packaging. But assessing a product’s environmental footprint is far trickier. You’d need to trawl through the provider’s website, decipher abstract data and hope that the information provided isn’t a load of greenwash.

But that could be about to change, courtesy of a new environmental labelling system that’s about to be piloted by Foundation Earth, an independent not-for-profit organisation. The scheme has the backing of notable retailers and brands, including Sainsbury’s, Co-op Food, Nestlé and Greencore.

Using a method developed by the University of Oxford and Mondra, an environmental information platform, products will be rated according to their farming, processing, packaging and transport footprints. Their impacts will be weighted 49% to carbon emissions and 17% each to biodiversity loss, water consumption and pollution. Their scores will be expressed using traffic-light colour code and an overall grade running from A+ down to G, in a similar style to the energy-rating labels used on white goods.

Foundation Earth is aiming to implement the system fully next year if the pilot goes to plan.

Will customers care?

More than half of consumers surveyed by Mintel in 16 countries in July agreed that there’s still time to save the planet from a calamitous temperature increase – and that their own actions can make a difference in this respect. Almost half of the respondents wanted products to include environmental impact labelling.

Morten Toft Bech is the founder of vegan food producer Meatless Farm, another partner in Foundation Earth’s nascent labelling scheme. He expects that the public response to the initiative will be overwhelmingly positive. 

“Consumers want transparency and there needs to be a shift in how we approach sustainability. That will come only with support from brands, governments and consumers,” Toft Bech says. “It’s never been more important to review our environmental impact and reflect on it. We must lead food towards a more sustainable future.”

Some businesses have already started trialling their own environmental labelling systems. They include plant-based milk brand Oatly and Tenzing Natural Energy, which this year became the first UK drinks company to introduce carbon labelling on its cans.

Working with climate impact researchers at Carbon Cloud, Tenzing put its whole supply chain under the microscope to work out the total carbon footprint of the business. This exercise was “almost shocking in its detail”, says Emily Gander, head of communications and sustainability at the company, which is a certified B Corporation. 

“It extended to the degree of asking: ‘How big is the boat that carries those ingredients from one country to another?’” she says. “Having identified our footprint, we wanted to be entirely transparent with our community about it.”

One of the biggest potential benefits of eco-labelling is that it encourages brands to reduce their impact in this way. Tenzing has switched production from the Netherlands to the UK, preventing the emission of 28.5 tonnes of CO2 a year. 

“It’s definitely not the cheapest way to do things, but it is the most sustainable,” says Gander, who thinks eco-labelling will stimulate a genuine shift in consumer behaviour. This would in turn encourage bigger brands to make positive changes, she adds, even though it’s harder for multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo to “shift their old processes and mindsets to prioritise planet over profit”.

Robust accounting 

For eco-labelling to be truly beneficial, the measuring system needs to be rigorous and standardised. Compared with the nutritional scoring system, which has “procedures that have been perfected for more than 100 years and could be tested by someone at home”, this is not easy to achieve. So says Dr Luca Panzone, senior lecturer in consumer behaviour at Newcastle University’s School of Natural and Environmental Sciences.

When it comes to assessing a product’s carbon footprint, “we aren’t even close to standardisation. It’s extremely complicated – everyone has their own method,” he observes. “A person in Newcastle might do it differently from someone in Aberdeen, say, and get totally different numbers.”

This is why the well-backed scheme proposed by Foundation Earth looks like a step in the right direction, although its progress is unlikely to be smooth, according to Toft Bech. 

He acknowledges that “creating a system that is fairly standardised, clear and informative is a big challenge. There may be some confusion at the start, as manufacturers get to grips with the processes and consumers get used to the labelling. I think there’ll be an education job to do.”

Tesco trialled carbon labelling as long ago as 2008 but dropped the scheme in 2012. At the time, the company blamed its decision on the fact that it took several months’ work to calculate each product’s footprint accurately – and the fact that no other big retailers had followed its lead.

Panzone suggests that it’s possible that eco-labelling could have an impact on competition that could prove undesirable for the big players – initially, at least. If a supermarket’s own brand of milk, for instance, turns out to have a lower environmental rating than that of another milk brand it stocks, that could cause it to lose sales. If consumers change their shopping habits accordingly, that’s precisely how such a system could be effective in compelling supermarkets to improve the environmental performance of their products. 

“The carbon footprint of an item is not written in stone like its calorific content, so this could stimulate a push to reduce products’ carbon emissions,” Panzone says.

He adds that eco-labelling should go hand in hand with other changes in both supermarkets and online stores to encourage greener purchasing behaviour.

“The problem with environmental messaging on products is that it reaches only those people who care,” Panzone explains. “But, if you change the layout of a store, you can reduce your carbon footprint a lot faster without people even realising. You can do this by moving less environmentally friendly products away from eye level on the shelves, for instance. Online, you can pre-sort items to drive people’s attention towards lower-carbon options.”

The government could also help the situation by introducing a tax on items according to the size of their carbon footprints, he argues. “There is still so much dissociation between consumption and environmental impact, as people are not directly affected by their purchase of, say, a £1 plastic toy from China.” 

With such a tax, consumers would still have choice, but at least the government would have money to help fix the environmental problems caused by the most carbon-intensive consumables.