Lidl moves first in ecolabel race

Labels in Scottish stores are set to spark an autumn rush in sustainability stickers on UK food and drinks. David Burrows reports.

Lidl has moved to the front of the food footprinting race in the UK. From this month, 50-or-so of its products will carry the Eco-score label, which combines the carbon impact of products with other metrics to produce a sustainability rating.

The trial is to run across 105 stores in Scotland, with teas, coffees, hot chocolates and other items ranked from ‘A’ (low impact) to ‘E’ (high impact). Customers will benefit from “a better understanding of the environmental consequences, at a glance”, the supermarket explained in a statement.

Lidl is already running trials with the label in Germany and the Netherlands. However, the timing of this latest one is significant, coming just ahead of the launch of another label also due to land in UK stores this month.  Developed by Foundation Earth and announced earlier in the summer, the scheme has attracted early support from Costa, Nestlé and Marks-and-Spencer. (Footprint understands Costa will have labels on food and drink, including a sausage bap). Last week, Starbucks, PepsiCo, Danone, Tesco and other supermarkets joined the label’s ‘advisory group’. So too did Lidl.

Like Eco-score, Foundation Earth’s label also grades products (though from A to G) and also promises to meet demand for “easy-to-understand information to help [consumers] make sustainable choices”. The approaches used to produce the scores, and the data underpinning them, are different though (see Footprint’s analysis here). And these are not the only options in town.

Last month, tech startup Foodsteps launched a carbon label for restaurants and hospitality businesses in the UK. CH&Co is expanding its use of the labels to more products at University College London.

Research across 85,000 meal choices, by Foodsteps founder Anya Doherty when studying at the University of Cambridge, showed carbon labels reduced the overall footprint of the food purchased by 5%. That’s a “small but tangible” change she said at a recent webinar on the topic run by Quota Media. The traffic light labels also sparked interest among chefs and suppliers who didn’t want to sell meals tagged with red footprints.

The Foodsteps approach relies on a “British-specific impact database for food, covering over 1,000 ingredients and incorporating carbon footprint, pollution, water use, and land use impacts”. This makes it similar to, but not as extensive as, Eco-score.

The use of a standard database certainly speeds the process and reduces costs for foodservice companies wanting to footprint their meals. Critics however suggest this approach lacks a degree of accuracy. Foundation Earth, for example, claim their approach is “unique globally” in allowing two products of the same type to be compared via a complete life cycle assessment (LCA).

Some experts doubt this really is feasible on such a scale. Eco-score’s founder Shafik Asal has suggested completing so many individual assessments just isn’t practical or commercially viable. “We will be all dead before [completing all those] LCAs,” he told Just-Food recently. “We have an urgent matter to shift our consumption to more sustainable habits.”

With lots of different labels and approaches out there “undercutting” becomes a big risk. Food businesses would be tempted to go for the one that “gives you the lowest score” said Doherty. “We support a unified and rigorous standard.”

Is that possible? In 2008, Tim Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at the Centre for Food Policy, City University, London, called on the UK government to develop a comprehensive set of standards covering all aspects of the impact our food has on the environment and society. This could then be displayed as an “omni-label”.

The idea didn’t stick. But 13 years on Lang is more optimistic. “…something like this has to emerge – the issue is how and who can do it?” he said during Quota’s webinar.

There will be much debate in the coming months over the most scientifically robust approach to such labelling, and which format consumers like best (once the trials have taken place). And whatever sticks won’t be a silver bullet – these labels are just one lever companies can pull to help shift consumption patterns.

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