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Summary: The use and usefulness of carbon labelling

Summary by Stephani Mcphee, research by Science Direct

With the desire to encourage sustainable food chains in the UK, there is a drive towards finding low carbon alternatives to commonly purchased products which is being achieved through carbon foot-printing and labelling. Carbon consumption is being translated to the average shopper using its life cycle analysis (LCA), or its ‘farm to fork’ impact, and directly displayed to them through a ‘carbon label’ on the product. 

The term ‘carbon footprint’ is widely recognized by consumers and the LCA takes into account all of the stages from cultivation to production and distribution, then converting carbon consumption at each stage to labelling units that are more easily understood by the consumer.

Policy imperative in carbon reduction is largely top-down, meaning that action is simply assumed to take place on the grounds that labelling will drive behavioural change. By highlighting which products are carbon friendly and which are not, it is assumed that demand will likely shift towards more eco-friendly choices.

PAS 2050:2008 was the first standardised method worldwide made to communicate the carbon footprint of products to the average consumer. Legislation requires that carbon labelling is a separate step from verification and certification. This distinction is overseen by the Carbon Trust to ensure that carbon footprints are calculated carefully and represented with transparency.

There is an expected commercial advantage to using carbon labels, however it relies on an evolution of consumer purchasing habits to truly decarbonize. Increasingly ‘carbon friendly’ choices will place pressure on supply chain actors to follow consumer demand for products with lower carbon footprints. Labelling is however only as effective as it is easy to digest by the average person. Clarity and easy of understanding is critical to reduce confusion and skepticism upon interpretation.

Link to Science Direct article

Carbon Labels Drive More Sustainable Food Choices

Summary of article by Niamh Michail by Stephani Mcphee

The carbon footprint of agriculture and food production is estimated to contribute 19% to 29% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

According to a study conducted in the US, most Americans underestimate the energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production and distribution of food. Complex supply chains are largely hidden, perpetuating the disconnect between the average American and the farmers of the food they consume. Many individuals are unaware of the methane released by cattle and the fact it is 28-36 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2.

Consumers underestimate the energy consumption of different types of food, with the disproportionate footprint of beef the most widely underestimated category. Habits cannot change without awareness. 

Testing awareness, a second part of this study used ‘lightbulb minutes’ as a metric to inform participants about the ghg emissions associated with the life cycle of common food products. 

Based on two control groups, those who are shown labels that convert emissions to the equivalent number of lightbulb hours are more likely to choose less carbon-intensive foods.

This study suggests that by offering a digestible statistic that informs consumers of their ecological impact may encourage more environmentally friendly choices while shopping.

Link to Food Navigator article

Can carbon labels on food help save the planet? It’s complicated

By Oliver Franklin-Wallis, summary by Stephani Mcphee

Quorn Foods is leading corporate transparency and a movement to facilitate consumers making sustainable food choices. Instead of simply indicating what is inside of their products and their nutrition facts, they are taking steps to outline what environmental costs are also embedded. Quorn has committed to labelling the carbon footprint of 30 of their best selling products directly on the packaging in a bid to reduce sector-wide emissions.

Companies such as Nestle are taking strides towards participating in this movement alongside Quorn. This increasing demand to adopt certifications from the Carbon Trust is validating which companies are calculating and offsetting the environmental impact of their products. Massive startups such as Allbirds and Peak Design are early participants in adopting the Climate Neutral certification, a similar label. 

Previous attempts at printing carbon labels have proven the difficulty in calculating each step of the production and distribution process, which includes details as intricate as fertilizer, item packaging, transportation, and etc. Considerations of deforestation, water use, the greenhouse gas emissions at each step all must be assessed. The variability of these factors means that there is variance in environmental impacts of different foods, leading to consumers underestimating their footprint. Tesco, the UK’s largest supermarket chain, stopped carbon labelling their products after realizing the difficulty in seeking all data from all of the farms involved in a product. Tesco lost motivation to continue since their competitors were not participating. 

Due to the difficulty in calculating the quantitative details at each step, labelling can pose challenges as well. Many brands have begun to adopt simpler carbon labels, similarly to the Organic and Rainforest Alliance labels, to indicate that an item has passed a (certain) threshold of environmental (sustainability). The Carbon Trust uses labels that state whether a product’s footprint has been measured, whether a product reduces CO2, and whether a product is carbon neutral. The Carbon Trust is widespread and used on a variety of different products. Recently, they have established a ‘Lower’ label, indicating that a product has a significantly smaller footprint than their competitors. 

Like any certification scheme, there are different ways of measuring and symbolizing something that attempts to portray (more or less) the same message. There are currently over 450 eco label certifications globally, each prioritizing different variables in their measurements. Labels are often confusing, and sometimes companies even invent their own logos to give the impression that a third party organization has given an approval stamp. Finding ways to avoid greenwashing is critical before carbon labels will ever be able to maintain credibility. 

In recent years, tracking across the supply chain has become more widespread, as farmers and distributors have begun to record data independently. Smart sensors, data tools, and sustainability startups are increasingly supporting companies to track environmental metrics across their entire supply chain. Consumer awareness of climate science continues to evolve, placing pressure on companies to remain up to date and transparent in their certification schemes. 

Often the carbon footprint of what we buy largely exceeds what we think, which may discourage consumers and lead them to reconsider buying products at all. This leads to the largest challenge— convincing the largest polluters to sign up for these certification schemes out of fear of losing sales due to their footprint. 

In policy and progress there is an opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions drastically. Most companies are aware of the competitive advantage of labels and many are truly attempting to reduce their footprint. If labels can be a guide for people to consume more sustainably, the planet will experience huge benefits. 

Link to Wired article