Caution needed over carbon neutral product rush

Supermarkets are busy launching carbon neutral products but the narrative that accompanies them leaves some niggling doubts, says David Burrows.

Forget the race to net-zero – in supermarkets the rush is to create carbon neutral products. Earlier this month Co-op announced that it was going to hit this mark across all its own-brand food and drink by 2025 (as part of a new 10-point climate plan). Then Lidl announced that it was working with dairy manufacturer Wyke Farms on a carbon neutral cheese that will hit shelves by the end of this year.

This, surely, is good news. Achieving net-zero by 2050 is all well and good, but what we want to see is the actions companies are taking now, today, and we are starting to see glimpses of that (the UK government, which was recently criticised by the public accounts committee for setting a net-zero target two years ago but still having “no plan” in place to get there, should take note).

I’d like to focus on Lidl’s cheese, partly because it’s arriving soonest and partly because there’s more information on what’s going to happen to bring it to market.

Firstly, it’s worth noting what carbon neutral means (a definition for net-zero is still being thrashed out). According to the Carbon Trust: “A carbon neutral footprint is one where the sum of the greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) produced is offset by natural carbon sinks and/or carbon credits.” 

So, in theory Lidl could pop a carbon neutral cheese on shelf tomorrow, simply through purchasing carbon offsets. NGOs would cry greenwash, of course, but there will undoubtedly be brands seeking to cut corners in order to make such carbon claims. Various oil companies and flight operators have already been caught out for reliance on offsets in meeting near-term emissions targets. “Offsetting best practice is clear that companies must begin with ‘prioritis[ing] reducing your own emissions’, noted law firm ClientEarth in a recent analysis of some of the claims being made.

Lidl has said it will achieve carbon neutrality “through a mixture of sustainable farming, improved business practices and the purchase of ‘gold standard’ carbon credits”. In other words, it’ll work on shrinking that cheddar’s carbon footprint first and whatever is left will be offset. Good stuff.

Reduction will happen through changes to soil, land and manure management, cutting down on fertiliser use and sourcing deforestation-free feeds (which will all be verified by the Carbon Trust). The more emphasis on reduction the fewer emissions that need to be offset.

But let’s not forget that cheese needs to be on sale within seven months. The press release doesn’t mention offsetting – it uses the term carbon credits instead. In time, however, the plan is to move to a “closed loop” carbon neutral system – in other words carbon insetting, which involves emissions reduction and sequestration within the supply chain. While offsetting is sometimes mocked as a lazy option, insetting can result in businesses taking more responsibility for reducing the emissions they have control over.

“Insetting is a type of carbon emissions offset, but it’s about much more than sequestering carbon: it’s also about companies building resilience in their supply chains and restoring the ecosystems on which their growers depend,” reads an article on the topic on the website Corporate Knights in 2017.

Nestlé was already taking an interest through its Nespresso supply chain and with the hype around net-zero it’s already popping up in the messages from other brands. PepsiCo is keen on the concept suggested Roberta Barbieri, VP of global water and environmental stewardship, in a podcast for Future Food recently, and Coop told that it is planning to explore insetting too.

So, you get the feeling that some of these food companies do ‘get’ the extent of the challenge and their responsibility to dramatically reduce their emissions. Some residual emissions will remain, of course, which is where insetting should offer potential. A carbon neutral badge on one cheese will also spur others to act: Lidl talks of applying the best practice used by its low carbon cheese producer in other supply chains.

While it's good to see this innovation, I have a couple of quibbles with the narrative. Lidl shoppers are already able to buy this cheese: Lidl Deluxe Cheddar is carrying a ‘carbon neutral pledge’, which is a marketing gimmick if ever there was (it reminds me of the ‘working towards’ targets loved by government).

And this is a dangerous space, especially with high impact products like cheese (only meat has a larger emissions footprint than chilled cheese in Lidl’s portfolio). “If consumers feel they can now consume these products 'guilt free', there's no incentive or drive for reduction, which will always be far more effective than any efforts to offset,” explains Joanna Trewern, sustainable diets and behaviour change specialist at WWF-UK.

Indeed, as the New Climate Institute put it in a recent report: offsetting can give customers the impression that their purchasing decision does not lead to emissions actually released into the atmosphere. Transparency is key.

So we need to know what that carbon neutral cheese looks like compared to the one on shelf today that’s ‘working towards’ carbon neutrality. Where – and how – have the reductions been made, what insetting has been possible and where does offsetting pick up the slack? Only then can we decide whether this potentially powerful project is all it’s cracked up to be.

1 Response

  1. Check all the leading atmospheric research bodies and they will state the the cause of Climate Change is burning use of fossil fuel! The simplest and most valid metric for comparing sustainability of food (and any other product/service) is the total direct and embodied fossil fuels per unit.
    Why do we not go this route? GHGS/emissions are a diversion strategy to avoid the blinding reality.

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