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Carbon labels for food and drink are coming. Will they make a difference?


Eco-labels are being tested in the UK this month, while some brands use them voluntarily. Could they help reduce carbon emissions?

They have become commonplace in supermarkets. Those finicky shoppers who can be seen leaning over a package, searching the label for information that might persuade them to put it back on the shelf. Maybe palm oil. Sodium. Fat. Sugar. You may be one of those people yourself.

If so, you will soon have even more data to digest. Eco-label testing for food and beverages has started in UK supermarkets, ahead of a planned launch in Europe from 2022.

Under the system, products that include meat and vegetables are classified according to carbon emissions, impact on biodiversity, and water use from farm to supermarket. Items are rated A * to G, as well as a red, amber, or green color to indicate whether they have a large, medium, or small ecological footprint. Scores are based on the individual merit of a product, rather than a generic rating for one type of food.

Food sustainability: new labels will help people buy sustainably

Environmental scores are designed to guide people towards sustainable options.

The system is being monitored by Earth Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has brands like Costa Coffee, M&S, and food delivery company Abel & Cole.

“The launch of Foundation Earth is a very important moment for the European food industry,” said Andy Zynga, executive director of EIT Food, the European Commission’s food innovation program. “It will produce a clear and credible environmental labeling system on the front of food packaging across the continent.”

A separate test of eco-labels, run by the University of Oxford, is underway in a dozen cafes in the UK. Meanwhile, some brands go it alone, releasing their own labels to communicate their green credentials to customers. Oatly is one of them. Avallen spirits, who makes calvados, is another.

“We can’t wait for government legislation,” said Avallen co-founder Tim Etherington-Judge, a former Greenpeace activist. “Some brands need to lead in this.”

Food labels

Food systems are responsible for about a third of global emissions. Image: Emiel Molenaar

It is perhaps not a surprise that Avallen is taking the lead. According to a recent Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) report, which calculated the environmental impact of its calvados, each 700 ml bottle removes 2.73 kg of CO2 from the atmosphere. A tag that communicates this could be an effective marketing tool.

“Maybe, but that’s not why we’re doing it,” Etherington-Judge said. “It’s about influencing the beverage industry and trying to steer it towards a more sustainable future. We believe this is the direction the industry should take ”.

In addition to listing water use and CO2 emissions (or lack thereof), Avallen uses carbon equivalent data to communicate its ecological footprint. Each bottle, the label explains, is the equivalent of no driving a family car for 13 miles.

Even if other brands follow Avallen’s lead, or are legislated to do so, are eco-labels likely to influence people’s behavior? A 2015 study offers cause for optimism. It found that nutrition labels increased the proportion of people choosing healthier products by 18 percent. In the meantime, a systematic review of 60 other studies concluded that nutrition labeling increased vegetable intake by 13.5 percent.

Avallen uses carbon equivalent data to communicate its ecological footprint

But where food labeling is perhaps most effective is in changing the habits of brands, rather than buyers. At least that’s according to Sean Cash, an associate professor at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Massachusetts, USA.

“Even if consumers aren’t rushing away from higher emitters, the fact that some are and everyone can see what others are doing could be a great stimulus for change,” he told Positive News. “That’s where I see a lot of potential.”

Cash gives the example of US lawmakers requiring food companies to disclose the amount of trans fatty acids in their products. The law took effect in 2006 and producers soon began reformulating recipes to eliminate unhealthy trans fats, or at least reduce them enough to round them to 0g.

“We accomplished most of the way to eliminating trans fats from the processed food supply in the US simply through a disclosure requirement,” he said. “It was almost as good as a ban.”

Even if consumers aren’t rushing away from higher emitters, the fact that some are could be a great stimulus for change.

Cash believes that another positive outcome of carbon labeling could be its potential to normalize sustainability and put it at the forefront of people’s minds. “When we look at tobacco labeling, I don’t think any one warning label has done much,” he said. “But taken together, the whole thing helped denormalize smoking.”

However, for carbon labels to be a success, they will need to be a consistent and legal requirement in their message, with an emerging dominant set. The Foundation Earth essay suggests it could be on the horizon. Until then, they are likely to be used as a marketing device, if at all.

“It is exciting that the trial is moving forward because it is the first step toward government legislation,” Etherington-Judge said. “We need to get to the point where sustainability is not a marketing tool, but the way of doing business.”

Lead image: d3sign / Getty Images


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