The pros and cons of climate labels

A universally supported and adopted climate label for food could do great things, but it won’t be easy to set up, says Sarahjane Widdowson of Ricardo Energy & Environment in an interview with Footprint

Footprint recently reported on how consumer-facing carbon labels (remember those?) could be set for a comeback. Three in four adults would apparently prefer to eat in a restaurant that displays carbon footprint details on its menus, while in a separate survey 66% said they would feel “more positive” about companies that can demonstrate they are making efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of their products. Meanwhile, Denmark has committed to introducing a broader climate mark for food.

So, we asked Sarahjane Widdowson of environmental consultancy Ricardo Energy & Environment for her thoughts, and here is what she said…

Footprint: How many on-pack climate (or carbon) labels are there (Europe, US or globally)?

Sarahjane Widdowson: There are a few on the market at the moment. Carbon footprints became popular a few years ago but I haven’t seen one on packaging recently in the UK. They indicated that some brands were measuring their impacts; however, there’s a question about what it really meant for the consumer.

F: What are the challenges involved in producing a climate label for food?

SW: There are a number of them, but I think the top three would be: consistency, cost and complexity.

So, on consistency, for a label to be effective it would need wholesale adoption so that a consumer can make informed choices. If only half of the products on a shelf or on the menu are labelled you’re not then able to compare like with like. A recent example of this has been food nutrition labelling. After a lot of pressure, Kellogg’s has now decided to adopt labelling on its cereals; however, before this you had the leading brand of cereals not using the same labelling system, so you couldn’t compare cornflakes from one brand with another very easily. Of course, the big question would be: how do you ensure consistency in an international market?

Now to the cost. Although recent articles have stated that an environmental label would be inexpensive I’d question this – at least in terms of set-up. There would need to be work done initially to harmonise the approach across the industry – both in terms of standard data sets and the way in which data is collected and recorded. I’d suggest that there would need to be independent certification, which will add costs, of course. Over time, some producers may see a reduction in costs because they’ve been able to identify opportunities for efficiencies, but this won’t happen overnight.

And finally, complexity. What are we trying to communicate? I’d suggest that consumers need one point of reference rather than a number of metrics to be able to make a decision between one product and another. Energy ratings on white goods are simple to understand – the higher the A rating the more efficient the product, which is both good for the environment and for the pocket. How do we communicate something that’s very complex – like climate impact – into a simple message? Indeed, I was at a recycling event last month and the issue of on-pack labelling was part of the discussion. For packaging, one of the major high-street retailers said that customers aren’t quite ready for the carbon message so they would probably focus on recycling in the short term. However, with carbon net zero targets to hit it’s going to have to become part of the public lexicon.

I believe the public’s recent focus on plastic has partly been due to the fact that it’s something tangible that we can touch and have seen the direct impacts of – litter, animals being harmed by plastic, the food we eat potentially being polluted by plastic. Climate change is still intangible for many people, so the big question here is: how can we make this the primary driver for decision-making or will it always be cost, taste, brand loyalty, nutrition, special offers and so on before climate comparisons?

F: That’s a lot to take on board already.

SW: It is, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. We also need to consider what scale we would use? There’s a huge difference in the impact of meat compared to onions, for example, and within the different types of meat there’s also a big difference between beef, lamb and pork. If you applied a RAG-style [red, amber, green] colour-coded rating would you include both meat and fish in the red category? How could you then differentiate between organic farming and factory farming, for example?

The other challenge with the label is the packaging. Frustratingly, packaging is seen as something detrimental to the environment rather than being a vessel that protects our food and keeps it fresher for longer. In carbon terms it’s a tiny part of the overall impact of the product, particularly if it’s packaging for meat. However, public interest is currently focused on plastic packaging, and so you’d need to think about consumer purchase behaviour but also losses along the supply chain – better packaging may help to reduce losses, but how would this be perceived?

Climate labels could help to reinforce the message about environmental protection but they also need to translate to the home environment. If you buy an A-rated climate meal (for example) your good work is undone if you don’t eat it and food waste is produced.

F: OK, that’s all the potential hurdles. How about the opportunities that come with such a label?

SW: One thing we have learnt from the ‘Attenborough effect’ is that if you can get the right hook so a message tips into the public psyche then you can start to drive action.

Indeed, a label that is universally supported and adopted could do great things. It would start to normalise climate change and make it part of our everyday life (as we’ve started to see happen with the Extinction Rebellion protest and those organised by the younger generation), something directly related to our life and actions, rather than something that might appear on the TV as a storm or weather event.

Look at nutrition labelling, for example. That has been a slow burn, but understanding has improved and more people are starting to refer to them [GDAs are recognised by 90% of UK consumers, while 81% understand the traffic lights; however, only 27% look for it on-pack, according to research by EUFIC]. Television programmes have helped with this, focusing on one element of the label: sugar. We understand that “sugar is bad” and so it’s something fairly simple to look for – red is bad and green is good. Other elements of the label are considered, but often it’s when someone wants or needs to control a specific element of their diet – for example, salt intake or calories.

F: Does the label need to be mandatory (globally) in order to have a chance of success? Or could climate labels on foods give countries a trading boost on the international market?

SW: Consumers do look for and expect certification on certain products – you might expect coffee, chocolate and bananas, for example, to be Fairtrade, which is an internationally recognised label, but there are many more labels that are only recognised within the UK.

Any label would need to be driven by the major brands and they do operate globally. The label would need to be easy to understand in multiple languages and numbering systems, and allow the packaging to continue to comply with any country-specific standards. To unify this you’d need a global mandatory system really. If this is done in a piecemeal manner it loses its power as you don’t have the ability to compare products, and it would come down to a “meat is bad, vegetables are good label”, which is correct. However, I’m not sure we need a label for that.

Most importantly there’s got to be a lot of communication behind a labelling system. Consumers would need to be educated about how to make the right choices.

F: So, could it work?

SW: The barrier for me is the messaging – can you create a label that will be able to tell the consumer at a glance whether the product they’ve selected is better or worse that a similar product? Should the consumer buy that product at all?

The other tension will be whether any label is too simplistic. There’s often a hierarchy of choice for the consumer when they’re selecting an item. Understanding these competing priorities will be important. Probably the most difficult step will be gaining industry agreement. How do you create the right scale? A simple traffic light approach might be easy to understand but too simplistic. If you add more metrics, then which one is king?

F: How about on restaurant menus, though? Could this be a way to nudge people into more climate-friendly decisions? It wouldn’t have to be internationally available – individual outlets could illustrate the impact of their different dishes.

SW: I like the idea in principle, but this might be incredibly difficult and costly for independent restaurants to do. Menus change regularly and specials can be dependent on seasonality or available stock. You could, in theory, be updating your menu at lunchtime and then again for evening service. Many restaurants have decided to offer information about ingredients and calorie content separately or upon request, so you’d assume that this information might also be separate from the main menu, which would reduce the impact of the information. I think we’ve got a way to go before climate impact becomes front of mind in our day-to-day activities, including eating out.

Sarahjane Widdowson is an associate director at Ricardo Energy & Environment.


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