The new climate label exciting European food brands

In January, a new ‘Eco-score’ label was launched in France. It’s complicated (and has its critics) but more food companies are trying it out for size. Could it catch on? David Burrows reports.

What is it? A new label to add to the 455 already in existence. But this one is a bit different, as you will see.Products are scored out of 100. Based on this they are placed in a colour-coded band: from high impact ‘red’ products (0 to 20) to low impact ‘dark green’ ones (80 to 100), a bit like traffic light labels for nutrition. The higher the score, the greener the product. “Eco-Score aims to inform consumers on the environmental impact of the food they choose so as to guide them towards more responsible consumption,” the website reads.

Seems simple enough. Actually, as Foodnavigator recently reported, the process is far from it. This is because the Eco2Initiative, the consultancy behind the scheme, isn’t just using a life cycle assessment (LCA) to calculate the scores. Assessing parameters like greenhouse gas emissions, water use, land use, particulate matter and acidification are just the first step. Products can also gain points (that is, bump up their score) based on other criteria, including provenance, third party certification schemes (like Fairtrade) and whether the packaging is recyclable. Points can also be lost for products linked with overfishing or deforestation. This is what makes Eco-score “so special” according to Stefan Goethaert from the Colruyt Group, a retailer and wholesaler which is using the scheme across 2,500 products in its Belgian stores. “[This label] goes far beyond just the CO2 emissions.”

Why have they done that? A straightforward carbon label would certainly have been easier. However, the adapted approach (a so-called ‘bonus-malus’ system) was designed to head off criticism that an LCA score alone could favour intensive production methods (which can be more efficient than extensive ones, like organic). "Beef from French cattle raised outdoors will get a better score than meat from their Brazilian counterparts who have never seen a pasture," Shafik Asal, owner of the Eco2Initiative, told Le Figaro. Organic certification also wins bonus points.

Could it work? It’s certainly an intriguing take on climate labels. There will, as ever, be critics of the LCA data used and the points scoring system. A recent opinion piece in Le Figaro penned by consumer group representatives highlighted the challenges of using generic data (two yoghurts may well get the same score “regardless of the efforts made individually by a particular manufacturer to reduce its climate footprint, promote biodiversity and progress more generally towards more sustainable products”). They also flag many manufacturers’ resistance to such schemes (the industry’s “silent opposition to […] full transparency”).

Oversimplification tends to be the criticism levied at all such schemes. But the concept of a more rounded eco-label is clearly one that some food companies on the continent are keen to explore. They also seem to like the fact that it aligns well with the nutri-score label (the front-of-pack nutritional rating label that is the front runner to become the EU’s mandatory nutrition label of choice). Shoppers, if polls are to be believed, are keen too. A recent Eurobarometer survey showed that 88% of Europeans want information on food sustainability to be mandatory on food labels (across the private and public sectors). Pressure is growing (and the science is improving) so it’s no surprise to see some brands moving forward on this.

So, who is using the labels? Colruyt’s Belgian customers can simply scan the barcode of products with the SmartWithFood app in order to receive its Eco-score. The plan is to have them on pack too. However, it’s the French who have driven this. Among those involved there so far are FoodChéri, a food delivery start-up, ready meal maker Seazon and online organic store La Fourche. WWF and Zero Waste France are among the groups that have been consulted on the scheme. “Eco-score will allow everyone to understand the environmental impact of a product at a glance,” said La Fourche co-founder Lucas Lefebvre. Lidl has also just started a trial in some stores in Berlin to see how shoppers take to it. The discounter said it is looking for a “pragmatic and easily understandable sustainability label”.

How about in the UK? Some supermarkets here say that 40% of their customers are quite willing to make changes to their buying habits but find it difficult. In restaurants and canteens there is often even less information about the climate impact, in particular of foods and meals. However, a number of food and drink brands, including Unilever, Oatly, Quorn and Leon, are using or developing carbon labels. Other schemes, like the one being developed by Mondra, are trying to combine greenhouse gas emissions with water scarcity, eutrophication and biodiversity to deliver one score on a sliding A to G scale.

Attempts to go beyond carbon are laudable. But the danger is that various approaches emerge that are not comparable and confuse consumers. Lidl said it remains open to “industry-wide labelling alternatives”. The writers of that Figaro piece called for data on all 360,000 products on shelves to be produced and then managed in a centralised database. The European Commission, in its farm to fork strategy, also committed to “examine ways to harmonise voluntary green claims and to create a sustainable labelling framework that covers, in synergy with other relevant initiatives, the nutritional, climate, environmental and social aspects of food products”. That won’t happen anytime soon, which means that food companies will almost certainly crack on with developing their own in-house climate labels. “People want simple, relevant information,” said Colruyt’s Goethaert. “They want to go beyond how healthy a product is and what its nutritional value is. Market research has shown that customers are also asking questions about the environmental impact of their products. It is up to us as retailers to help them, starting with our private label products.”  

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