Counting on carbon to change consumer choices

Wahaca has joined Leon and Benugo in adding greenhouse gas emission footprints to its menus. Will consumers take any notice, asks David Burrows?

From April 1st, businesses employing more than 250 staff have had to start displaying calorie labels on all the food and drink they prepare for customers. “I am not a huge fan of calorie counting – it’s a blunt tool in terms of assessing the goodness in the food we eat, and only tells us a fraction of the story,” said Wahaca co-founder Thomasina Miers recently.

It’s a fair point, and one you could fire back at a business that has just started displaying greenhouse gas emissions on its menu. ‘How about water, biodiversity, fair pay and land use’, supporters of so-called omni-labels might cry?

That’s a debate for another day, but let’s take a look at Wahaca’s approach to carbon labelling and whether it will make a difference?

The Mexican chain has (with the help of Klimato, which specialises in this field and also works with the likes of Sodexo) counted the greenhouse gas emissions (CO2e) for every dish it serves. A chargrilled steak burrito weighs in at 3.04kgCO2e. Pop chicken in the burrito instead and this drops 78% to 0.67kgCO2e. Go for the sweet potato one and you’re talking just 0.46kgCO2e.

All these carbon counts are available on Wahaca’s website (here) but won’t be cluttering menus. Instead, every dish will fall into one of three bands – low, medium or high – and be labelled accordingly. The bands relate to how the dishes compare with the average meal in the UK, which has a footprint of 1.55kgCO2e based on the calculations Klimato has done. Those with a ‘low’ label will have a footprint that is around a third or less of that average (0 to 0.549kgCO2e), while ‘medium’-marked dishes will be equal to or below that average meal (0.55 to 1.54kgCO2e), and anything above 1.55kgCO2e will be classed as ‘high’. (The scale has been halved against the smaller dishes as diners are encouraged to order more than one if they want them to make up a ‘main meal’).

The approach is an interesting one: it will certainly have life cycle assessment (LCA) specialists reaching for their calculators and flicking through their databases. Not all consumers are similarly inclined however, hence the use of the three simple bands. “We felt that the emissions numbers wouldn’t mean much to the average person and potentially may add more confusion (especially with the calorie counts also on the menu),” Wahaca sustainability manager Carolyn Lum tells Footprint.

Edwina Hughes, head of cool food at the World Resources Institute (WRI) likes the approach. She says “simplicity is key when it comes to communicating sustainability messages about food, so this approach to grading dishes low, medium or high is useful because at a glance a diner knows whether they are picking a relatively climate friendly option versus one that is not”.

WRI has its own approach – the cool food meals badge – for meals that fall below a certain emissions threshold. In Europe the threshold is 3.7kgCO2e for lunch or dinner and 2.47kgCO2e for breakfast (in the US it’s 5.28kgCO2e and 3.59kgCO2e) respectively. That’s more than double even the average that Wahaca is working to. So what gives?

For its calculation, WRI sources insight from a similar LCA data set to Wahaca and Klimato but then also incorporates a land use change measure (or ‘carbon opportunity cost’), which accounts for arable land having been “something more climate friendly” like forest before it was pasture or crops, says Hughes. Land intensity can be an overlooked climate consideration when it comes to food, she adds.

Different approaches to eco-labelling are par for the course currently. Putting that to one side, will Wahaca’s approach shift behaviour to lower carbon meals? Possibly not. Wahacamole (0.17kgCO2e) using Hodmedod’s fava beans and billed as the "more sustainable alternative" to guacamole (0.24kgCO2e), is in the same band as guacamole (both 'low'). Ditto nachos (0.51CO2e) and veggie nachos (0.42CO2e), and so too caesar salad (0.16CO2e) and chicken caesar salad (0.35CO2e).

In other words, this approach mightn’t promote swaps that create a meaningful reduction in footprints. There are cases where they might, for example a wholefood salad with chicken (0.63kgCO2e) is ‘medium’ while the cauliflower option is ‘low’ (0.39kgCO2e). Maybe diners will see medium as ok though: so long as they avoid the three dishes that are ‘high’ (all contain beef) they can consume without too much climate concern (Perhaps a more appropriate scheme would have been ‘low’, ‘high’ and ‘very high’?).

“[...] since climate change is at the very least as important to human health as calorie intake, we want to help people make decisions that are better for the planet as well as for themselves,” said Miers at the launch.

It will be intriguing to see how (if?) sales change now the labels are in place, and what that means for Wahaca’s footprint? A carbon or eco-label won’t be a silver bullet, though: restaurants looking to drive diners to choose more sustainable options may need to employ a range of tactics, including labels, messaging and plant-heavy menus.

The average diet related daily carbon footprint in the UK is currently 5.17kg CO2e, according to WWF, and this needs to shrink to 4.09kg CO2e by 2030.

It’s therefore encouraging to see more brands trying some of these approaches in a bid to share more information with consumers (it’s certainly what they are demanding), especially in the current economic climate and when they are also having to add calorie information too.

Wahaca should take credit for its move into this space and the fact that much of its menu is already low impact (according to its own calculations with Klimato of course).

As we have seen with these labels, it tends to be those with low emissions that use them first (think Quorn Foods and Oatly for example). Imagine the impact these figures would have at a McDonald’s or Burger King, or a national pub chain, perhaps even across all public sector canteens? Mandatory eco-labelling at least gives the government something to think about now it’s got calorie labels out of the way.

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