The carbon labelling diaries

Stroll around a supermarket and you’ll see many environmental prompts. From MSC-certified fish and organic steak to Rainforest Alliance tea, local tomatoes and plastic-free fruit, there is something to ease every eco-anxiety. Or is there? 

Amid all these eco-cues, one is missing – and arguably the most important one. Greenhouse gas emissions, presented in the form of a carbon footprint label, are pretty much invisible to shoppers. How is this possible when we are staring a climate crisis in the face and food consumption is responsible for around a quarter of global emissions? 

It’s a question I’ve been grappling with as part of a report for The Grocer – a food industry publication I worked for in 2008, when there was an appetite for carbon labelling. The first on-pack footprints had arrived, with PepsiCo putting one on its Walkers crisps (75gCO2e, later adjusted to 80gCO2e). Tesco, meanwhile, had committed to labelling all its products. The Carbon Trust, which was working with some of the firms on the lifecycle analyses, told me the plan was to have a label on “everything you can buy” – and not just food. MPs also bought into it. “Carbon labelling is crucially important,” the Environmental Audit Committee concluded in a report published in 2009. 

It didn’t turn out that way. Beyond the pioneers, such as Boots, Innocent and Halifax, the idea got little traction. Five years in, Tesco gave up, blaming the cost of the analyses and the time they were taking. The lack of interest shown by competitors also irked. “We expected that other retailers would move quickly to do it as well, giving it critical mass, but that hasn’t happened,” Tesco’s spokeswoman told The Grocer in 2012. (Actually, that wasn’t the whole story. The cost wasn’t prohibitive; it was apparently more to do with a change in top management.)

Now, eight years on, the labels are back. In January, Quorn announced that it was going to put a carbon footprint label on 60% of its products and, like Tesco, encouraged others to follow its lead. Will they? 

At the moment, the only brands that appear to be treading this path are in the meat or dairy alternative space. Oatly, for example, has put its footprint on the front of its dairy-free drinks (0.31kgCO2e/kg, assessed by CarbonCloud), while Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods have published analyses comparing the footprints of their products with real meat. 

This is helping us to understand the impacts of our choices. According to YouGov, 65% of UK consumers think a carbon label is a ‘good idea’. A label that allows people to compare products is enticing – not least because there can be a significant difference between two seemingly identical products. Research conducted at the University of Oxford by Joseph Poore, for example, showed that one bar of chocolate can create zero emissions if the cacao trees are growing and storing carbon, while another will have 6.5kgCO2e embedded in it. Currently we can go for a Fairtrade or organic bar but have no idea if it’s the low-carbon option. Shouldn’t we have the choice? Or should we trust retailers to only offer the low-carbon ones (so-called ‘choice-editing’)?

There is an argument that carbon labelling could leave us going around in circles. If we choose almond milk over dairy the carbon footprint is lower, but what about water? Organic pork uses fewer pesticides but might well have a bigger carbon trotter-print. And what about fair pay and animal welfare? Free range eggs might make you feel better about the chickens that supplied them, but what if you knew that the carbon impact of that system was higher than if they’d been caged? If we had the information, we could at least make an informed choice. The more products with labels, the more informed we’d be – provided we looked.

The label would have to be visually appealing, easy to understand and offer some context. One study translated the emissions into a “familiar unit” – the equivalent number of light bulb minutes – together with a sliding scale from red (high emissions) to green (low). When they tested it out, people bought more of the vegetable soup (314 minutes) and less of the beef soup (2,127 minutes). They also had more accurate perceptions of the products on offer. Imagine that rolled out to thousands of products in every store you walk into. That’s certainly easier to picture now, in 2020, than it was in 2008. 

David Burrows is a freelance writer and researcher. 

Image credit | iStock
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