Foodservice Footprint Glass2 Comment: the footprints of food brands can be deceptively dainty Comment Out of Home News Analysis

Comment: the footprints of food brands can be deceptively dainty

Digging through the data in order to report your full climate footprint can be heavy going but it pays to be transparent when reporting it, says David Burrows. 

Food companies continue to struggle with their scope 3 (value chain) emissions, which are on average more than 11 times higher than their scope 1 and 2 (operational) emissions.

Data from CDP, a not-for-profit that runs a global environmental disclosure system, shows that out of the 1,401 food, drink and agriculture companies disclosing through the platform last year 71% and 67% disclosed scope 1 and 2 emissions figures respectively.

However, just 41% offered up at least one category of scope 3 emissions. More worrying, however, is the fact that CDP’s data suggests that companies that do report on scope 3 may not always focus on the categories where the bulk of their emissions lie. 

There are 15 categories in all for scope 3 emissions according to the GHG protocol. The most relevant ones for food and beverage companies, according to CDP’s technical note, tend to be category 1 (purchased goods and services), category 4 (upstream transportation and distribution) and category 9 (downstream transportation and distribution). Most (two thirds or more) tend to be in category 1.

But of those 1,401 companies CDP has looked at, just 20% disclosed emissions in all three of those categories. This obviously makes their climate footprint look a lot daintier than it is.

I recently looked at the emissions being reported across the world’s largest food manufacturers and found considerable inconsistencies. Most had figures available but it wasn’t always clear which categories of their scope 3 were included and which weren’t. The science-based targets initiative allows some to be omitted. 

Nestlé’s reduction target within its net-zero plan for example excludes emissions from the consumer use of sold products as well as those from purchased services, leased assets, capital goods and investments. This is clearly indicated but combined this totals 21.3MtCO2e. A line has to be drawn somewhere but where that line is remains a grey area – as foodservice businesses operating at client sites undoubtedly understand.

Data will improve, of course. Much is secondary data currently but companies are increasingly using primary data in their reporting. CDP says 34% of scope 3 emissions reported by food, beverage and agriculture businesses are calculated using primary data – but they are not scored any better for this (which seems a little unfair perhaps).

Suppliers of the big food companies in particular will be receiving more demands for more data and as this is fed back the footprints may change slightly. Nestlé for example says: “As we enhance our ability to identify and measure emissions, and better use the data that has been disclosed by our suppliers and others, our monitoring will improve. We intend to also share our science-based methodology for calculating greenhouse gas emissions to help push new frontiers in climate data transparency for the food and beverage industry.”

Transparency is key. Harmonisation, as the UN expert group recently suggested, is critical when it comes to net-zero targets and plans. This is coming but until then the rules governing such disclosures are largely voluntary which leaves NGOs and campaigners easy pickings as they dig about for greenwashing headlines. More firms will inevitably go quiet as they avoid scrutiny and digest the new net-zero guidance from SBTi for the forest, land and agriculture sectors.

Trying to compare the carbon footprints of food companies at the moment is like comparing apples and pears, but doing so is really important. On the back of my work looking at global food manufacturers and UK supermarkets what’s clear is that there are companies in there trying to do the right thing – but that’s not always easy. 

Others are clearly ignoring their responsibilities or continue to allow marketing teams to hold sustainability hostage, as one commentator put it recently. Just 12% of the food, beverage and agriculture companies submitting information to CDP reported net-zero targets, and of those 20% didn’t provide sufficient details about their targets and just 6% had had them approved by the SBTi.

There is certainly a long way to go to on net-zero. As ever, the golden rule is to be open and honest. It’s a decent resolution for 2023. Do so and there is far less chance of falling foul of NGOs that have found it all too easy to expose greenwashing in the net-zero commitments and reports of 2022.