Costa is among the businesses piloting a new label that scores products on their environmental impact. Will the concept stick? David Burrows reports.
WHAT’S HAPPENED? There’s a new eco label in town – and it could prove to be a seminal moment for the food sector. The front-of-pack environmental ‘score’, launched by a new non-profit organisation called Foundation Earth, will use a traffic light-style system to rank products on a sliding scale from A to G.
THAT SOUNDS FAMILIAR? You’re thinking of Eco-score. It’s similar, in that it scores food and drink products (albeit from A to E rather than A to G) and uses life cycle assessments (LCAs). However the data and methodology used to get there is quite different. The Foundation Earth scheme doesn’t span as many metrics (it doesn’t take into account animal welfare, for example, or producer payments or provenance like Eco-score). However, those involved argue that their data is more robust, allowing for more accurate assessments of the impact of individual products.
HOW ARE PRODUCTS SCORED? In the pilot, due to start in September, products will be scored and labelled using the so-called ‘Mondra method’. Mondra describes itself as a ‘sustainability advisory company’ and its labelling method uses data from the University of Oxford and Swiss research centre Agroscope. The product scores span carbon (49% weighted), water usage (17%), water pollution (17%) and biodiversity loss (17%). The LCA covers farming, processing, packaging and transport, but not retail or ‘end-of-life’. Some suggest that’s understandable given that the process is already quite complicated – everything from the refrigeration units used to the cooking process (by consumers or chefs) and where the packaging ends up would need to be factored in too. Typical values could have been used but the concept of such a label is nevertheless an intriguing and exciting one.
IT’S NOT PERFECT THEN? Certainly not – and those involved admit as much. Labels that go further than, say, a carbon footprint face a number of challenges, including: what metrics should you cover; how do you balance them; and what data do you use? Far more scrutiny will be placed on the final approach Foundation Earth uses to rank products from A to G. Detail on this is sparse but it promises to compare products “on their individual merits via a complete product life cycle analysis as opposed to simply using secondary data". An intensive nine-month research and development programme, funded by Nestlé, will look to knit together two different systems of environmental scoring – the Mondra one and one funded by EIT Food, which involves a consortium of Belgium’s Leuven University and Spanish research agency AZTI. The two systems have “significant” similarities, according to those close to both approaches.
YOU SAID THERE IS A PILOT FIRST THOUGH. Yes. Come September a score (using the Mondra method) will be on about 100 products (LCA experts are keen to scrutinise this approach when details are published). Food companies including Costa, Marks & Spencer, Greencore, Meatless Farm and Finnebrogue Artisan will all have products scored during a pilot phase. Footprint understands Costa will have labels on food and drink, including a sausage bap.
ONE HUNDRED DOESN’T SOUND MUCH. That’s true. Really the pilot phase is to see how the labels are received while the researchers behind the initiative experiment with the best approach for generating the scores for wider rollout.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT FOUNDATION EARTH. It’s a new non-profit organisation that will verify the latest scheme. It was actually the brainchild of Denis Lynn, the Finnebrogue Artisan founder and chairman who tragically died in an accident in May. Professor Chris Elliott, from Queen’s University Belfast, is chairing the scientific committee overseeing the whole project. There are also experts from Leuven University, Belgium, and AZTI in Spain. The other committee members will be ratifying the data and the label to ensure that it’s scientifically robust. They are said to have absolute independence too (the inclusion of Professor Elliott, who led the UK government’s review into the horsemeat scandal, has added credibility to the whole project).
IS THE FOOD INDUSTRY KEEN? Some businesses are, yes. As well as those mentioned above, Nestlé is funding the research and development work and will be road-testing a range of its products to see what works and what doesn’t as they try and weave those two product scoring approaches together. Also on the industry advisory group is Tyson, which is significant given its role in the world’s supply of meat and (more recently) plant-based proteins.
SO MEAT PRODUCTS WILL BE SCORED? Absolutely. Plant-based brands like Oatly, Impossible and Quorn have been keen to promote the carbon footprints of their products because they tend to be low. That this scheme includes low and high impact products is significant. Jago Pearson is chief strategy officer at Finnebrogue, which owns the bacon brand Naked, and has been heavily involved with the new foundation. “We're going to put the scores on whether they're good, bad or ugly [and] some of them will be pretty ugly,” he tells Footprint. “But our consumers deserve to know.”
IS THAT GOOD MARKETING? Pinning a label to a product that says it’s got a big environmental impact will certainly give branding and PR teams the sweats. However, the point those involved make is that a bad score is better than no score (consumers and investors may wonder what those without a label are hiding). There is also recognition that here stands an opportunity to shape a form of labelling that now seems inevitable. Consumers are craving environmental information in a simple (reliable and robust) format so they can make informed decisions. Pressure is growing on the food industry to help them.
DO YOU MEAN MANDTORY LABELS ARE COMING? Not yet. In its farm to fork strategy the European Commission committed to producing a “sustainable food labelling framework to empower consumers to make sustainable food choices” by 2024. There will be a mandatory nutritional label (it has taken years to get to this point, and nutritional data is arguably easier to settle on than environmental, especially beyond greenhouse gas emissions). Some kind of eco score could eventually be enforced, unless industry comes up with its own solution.
HOW ABOUT IN THE UK? A mandatory environmental label in the UK isn’t on the current government’s to-do list (which is why Defra secretary George Eustice has offered support for the Foundation Earth scheme). The British Retail Consortium meanwhile is working on the provision of “climate information” as part of its climate action roadmap. Footprint understands the lack of data is holding up progress and concerning some of those involved, so it will be interesting to see how this new scheme is received.
DATA SEEMS TO BE AN ISSUE. Undoubtedly. The fundamental problem with a consumer-facing label is you often just can't get the data from the supply chain in a scalable way; hence why Eco-score has gone down what it calls the “solid and feasible” route of using averages. Its founder Shafik Asal doesn’t expect companies to fork out for product-level LCAs. Foundation Earth reckons it can, especially if the whole thing can be automated as planned. In time companies should even be able to see how an ingredient swap or a change in supplier affects their score (which can also be regularly updated).
THAT’S IMPRESSIVE. Indeed. Slapping a score on products could be a powerful tool to encourage shoppers to switch products and diners to select more sustainable meals. But we don’t know how powerful until there are thousands of products labelled, ideally globally (it could certainly accelerate the trend towards plant-based foods but be warned: some products may score better or worse than you think). However, the bigger benefit of this kind of environmental exposure is arguably the impact it has on the supply chain: chocolate brands will compete to beat their counterparts, cereal makers will plough investment into scoring as high as they can and fast food chains will look to beat one another to the most sustainable burger. Companies compete on environmental performance rather than just on quality and price. “This is about creating change and building a more sustainable food industry,” says Finnebrogue’s Pearson. “Consumer buying choices, based upon clear and credible environmental scores, will drive this change.”
SO WHICH OF THE SCHEMES IS BEST? Let’s not go there (yet).