Carbon labelling: do the numbers finally add up?

Leon has added carbon labels to its menus, while Unilever hopes to publish emissions data for its entire portfolio. Could the days of treading carefully on carbon footprints be over? David Burrows reports.

Are carbon labels worth a second look? It is something I have been mulling over recently as interest in the concept once again snowballs.

Foodservice supplier Vegetarian Express is providing its customers with emissions statements for menu items that they can in turn communicate to their own customers. Caterers meanwhile have told Footprint they are looking at ways to “increase the information they share on menus”. And now Leon has joined the party – its “better burgers and fries” come with carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) values.

In grocery there is heightened activity too. FMCG brands Oatly and Quorn already have footprints on some of their packs. Meanwhile, Unilever said last summer that “transparency about carbon footprint will be an accelerator in the global race to zero emissions, and it is our ambition to communicate the carbon footprint of every product we sell”.

For a reported 70,000 products, that won’t be easy. But it should be easier than it was 10 years ago when Tesco set a similarly bold target.

For one, there is more data now and the cost of life cycle analyses (LCAs) has come down (though Tesco, contrary to reports, didn’t pull the plug on its scheme due to costs – it was a change in CEOs and a lack of appetite among consumers and competitors at the time). The information isn’t perfect and some emissions data will be general rather than specific to a particular supply chain or product, but should that stop momentum?

“The value of the label comes not from providing perfect information, but better information than the consumer has at present,” wrote Michael Vandenbergh and Thomas Dietz in their paper for Nature Climate Change in 2011.

Around the same time, a paper in the Journal of Physical Distribution & Logistics Management, said the whole thing was far too time-consuming. It will be “fraught with difficulty and very costly”, noted Professor Alan McKinnon, who was at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, at the time. Writing in the FT last month, he said “little has happened since then to change my opinion”.

McKinnon, now at the Kühne Logistics University in Hamburg, is right to say labelling products will be tricky. He also wonders if the appearance of labels would actually increase the share of lower carbon products. This is the more challenging hurdle, but a harmonised approach would offer a leg up.

The European Commission has been working on standardised methodologies for 10 years. Many heads have been scratched but approved labels are yet to be stuck on steaks or sandwiches. The Environmental Audit Committee looked at ecolabels more widely in 2009, concluding that “carbon labelling is crucially important”. MPs suggested industry could agree on a labelling scheme but “as in the case of food labelling, it may be that the best and clearest label allowing the easiest consumer choice has to be developed by a statutory agency and the government will in due course have to consider the need to legislate for a sector-based universal labelling scheme”. It didn’t and it’s been left to industry.

“We know consumers are open to getting easy access to environmental data [but] our real challenge is getting the government and industry support to make it readily available,” Ishen Paran, general manager at Oatly UK, told me in early 2020. Twelve months on and there are signs of a shift.

For instance, the provision of “climate information” was included in the British Retail Consortium’s new climate action roadmap. Is a standardised, ubiquitous label on the cards? If organisations work together, (some) data can (possibly) be shared. The fact that some brands, like Oatly, are up and running is positive. But when an industry behemoth comes out in support of carbon labels, as Unilever recently did, the pace can quicken.

Indeed, the more labels there are the more incentive companies will have to ensure the numbers on their products or recipes are as low as possible. But as Tesco found: cajoling others down the carbon footprint path is tough. Some will be happy (still) to see things stall as they call for standardised approaches that they know will fail as industry argues over a common approach. Imagine the wrangling over emissions data if it makes one competitor looks better than another. Perhaps the BRC can overcome this. Regulation certainly would, but that’s a stretch even for this ‘greener’ government.

There are other questions. Which products do you start with? How will producers be supported (farmers lack serious data about the emissions on their farms)? Which models do you use for the analysis? What coverage within a category is enough to drive change?

Also: how will the carbon figure impact other schemes? Ecolabels exist for fair pay, animal welfare, palm oil and pesticides but these won’t always align with a carbon footprint. For example, the eggs Tesco tested ranged from 238gCO2e to a shade under 300gCOe per egg. And the organic eggs came with the bigger footprints than those from caged hens. Organic farming tends to have a higher footprint than conventional, but there are potentially wider benefits for biodiversity and welfare.

A less obvious concern is what support – financial and environmental – will there be for smaller brands? LCAs are not as costly as they once were, but putting a footprint on pack is an additional cost that some will see as red tape (albeit voluntary) and far from essential in a recession. Will those without a footprint be viewed with suspicion and lose share? The bigger the database Unilever builds the cheaper each footprint will become. Some of the big brands have also been calculating their carbon but kept the results secret. Little of this will be at SKU-level.

Foodservice brands will certainly have concerns about all this. Carbon labels across public sector catering menus could stimulate considerable change in consumption patterns, but are they possible on current margins? No way. Private sector caterers meanwhile have been hit hard by the pandemic, yet interest in net zero and reducing emissions remains high. At a recent Responsible Business Recovery Forum one speaker explained: “We’ve been looking at how we go about helping customers make better decisions around their own environmental impact via the food choices they have. So what does it look like to increase the level of information shared on the menu, [like] carbon data? If you look at the sales mix you can understand which of the best sellers is most carbon intense and then start to work backwards to help reduce the carbon footprint individually and collectively.”

Perhaps in some cases the approach needs to be by stealth, shifting menus and options gradually towards more sustainable offers? Contract caterers could also help clients towards their own net zero goals with low-carbon menu options. Indeed, there is an argument that all this heavy lifting should be done by food businesses – selecting products and cutting carbon so the choices on shelf are leaning towards the sustainable end of the scale. Low carbon meals or packaged products are likely to be attractive to consumers – 10 years ago there was no ‘Greta Thunberg effect’ and no covid-19 – but price will have to be equally so (Nestlé recently announced €3bn Euros of investment to cut greenhouse gas emissions but said some of this would be funded by “charging a premium for more sustainable goods”).

Another problem. The introduction of carbon labels to menus could also, to a certain extent, shackle innovation. Menus that change frequently could lead to endless carbon calculations, but the development of databases with key ingredients and supply chains could overcome this. Again, it wouldn’t be perfect but it would be something. Again, it will prove easier for the big brands like Starbucks and Costa – those that stick to menus and can exert pressure on suppliers to comply with their own emissions reductions.

Some of these arguments are also deployed against calorie labels on menus. The evidence that such labels could reduce energy consumption is, some say, suggestive rather than definitive. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t work – a consistent, ubiquitous and well-policed scheme has a better chance of shifting behaviour.

Could calories and carbon even come hand in hand? The FT report to which McKinnon was responding suggested that carbon footprints would tread a similar path to nutrition labels. This is debatable: the latter involves choices for the collective good (tackling climate change) rather than for personal benefit, like the former. And consider: you buy a fridge for your kitchen with an 'A rating' for energy and there are environmental and financial savings. Purchase some oat milk rather than cow's milk to put in it and you'll again save carbon but not cash. Also: nutrition labels have taken years to gain traction, but the clock on climate is ticking loudly.

So, it’s all frightfully complicated. Consultancies love the concept of carbon labelling, and some corporates may be for turning (especially in the run up to COP26). But how about consumers? It's hard to tell. But covid-19 has forced us to think collectively rather than individually and 67% of Brits want to see the UK lead on climate change.

At Leon, the beetroot soya LoVe burger and sweet Carolina burger weigh in at 0.49kgCO2e and 0.43kgCO2e respectively, compared to the crispy chicken’s 0.613kgCO2e. Fries have a footprint of 0.11kgCO2e; but load them with cheese and this almost trebles (0.305kgCO2e). It’s also interesting to note that the double LoVe burger has the highest footprint (0.724kgCO2e). The information will “make it easier for guests to learn more about the environmental impact of their food choices and choose options which lower their own personal carbon footprint”, the chain says.

There is of course little context with how these compare to competitors. The footprints of Leon’s vegan burgers, kilo for kilo, appear lower than those made by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Could carbon footprints become a competitive advantage?

Leon, as well as Oatly, Quorn and Unilever seem to think so. Others, I am sure, will soon join this club. After all, some labels are better than no labels but more labels would be better than (almost) none.

No Comments Yet.

Leave a comment

Footprint News

Subscribe to Footprint News