Marketing meat alternatives: Why carbon labels don't stick... yet

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/Bubbers13
© iStock/Bubbers13

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Some foods have a bigger carbon footprint than others. Cue the need for a carbon label so consumers can choose accordingly? Perhaps not - as Tesco and PepsiCo have found out.

Last year mycoprotein manufacturer Quorn invested in some research. The manufacturer of meat alternatives wanted to compare the carbon impact of its products with their meaty cousins. A life cycle analysis (LCA) showed the carbon footprint of the company’s mince product is 90% smaller than beef mince, whilst its chicken pieces ‘emit’ 75% less carbon than ‘real’ chicken.

These were “remarkable”​ results, the firm noted. Perhaps so, given the extent of the emissions gap between the two protein sources. But are consumers really that interested?

It depends on the market, according to Alex Glen, head of brand communications at Quorn. In Sweden, sustainability is high on consumers’ agenda, whilst in the UK and the US it’s a “growing trend, but not yet driving purchasing behaviour as much it will do in the next few years”.

This perhaps explains why the concept of a carbon label, depicting total embedded emissions in a product in grams, hasn’t quite stuck. Customers are more swayed by messages around the health and nutritional benefits of products than any carbon label,”​ suggests Mark Driscoll, head of food at sustainability NGO Forum for the Future.

Tesco, for one, had considerable ambitions in this space: the supermarket wanted to label all its 70,000 products but struggled with the scale and cost of the analyses required (and let’s not forget that carbon is just one environmental impact – water, land use and biodiversity are all indicators that can also be measured and monitored).

Critical mass

Tesco also became frustrated that much of the rest of the food industry wasn’t that bothered with carbon labels, which meant there could be little or no critical mass.

It’s hard to blame Tesco for giving up: measuring an invisible gas and attributing a figure to it on a pack of mince will mean relatively little to shoppers unless every other pack of mince – both meat and meatless – has the same label.

Some have called for a mandatory scheme to force companies to footprint their products and by turn encourage a shift to low carbon diets. It’s a fine idea, in theory, but in practice it could create all sorts of headaches.

Take beef, which creates considerable greenhouse gas emissions even in comparison to other meats, let alone meat alternatives. A widespread carbon label could offer chicken fillets, say, an unfair advantage over beefsteak and even run contrary to European competition regulations. John Kazer, an LCA expert at the Carbon Trust who worked with Quorn, sees another problem.

“If you say beef is high carbon and therefore ‘bad’ you remove the incentive for the industry to change,”​ he explains. “The concept of showing improvement is useful though.”

Do we need another label?

Many food and drink companies are therefore aggregating their carbon footprinting results in order to identify hot spots where emissions can be reduced (and often money saved) rather than sticking labels on individual products.

Walkers crisps is a case in point: its owner PepsiCo was one of the first to use a carbon label on pack in 2007 but has done little to promote it in the past five years. There was a shift in focus, it seems: in 2010 the company committed to cut the carbon emitted and water used in its potato supply chain in half within five years, and this week it announced the target had been met. It’s a positive brand story without the need for a label.

Can the meat alternative sector also tout its low carbon wares? Certainly, but it will tend to be as part of a general conversation about sustainable diets rather than buying low carbon proteins. Glen at Quorn explains: “Part of the reason that sustainability will become a higher priority is the increasing information available to consumers about the impact of intensive livestock production.”

This will be a slow burner, however. “While it would be ideal for consumers to take environmental protection into consideration with their purchases, ethical concerns are simply not a main driver of consumer behaviour,”​ admits Emily Byrd from the Good Food Institute, which backs innovation in the meat alternatives sector.

Before any company can see dividends on marketing their products as environmentally friendly and sustainable, its products need to deliver on taste, price and convenience,” ​she adds.

Indeed, take a look at the top brands for plant-based meats and the focus is on taste and increasingly the health credentials. Beyond Meat’s homepage features the nutritional content of its Beyond Burger, leading with its high-protein content and beef-identical taste.

It’s not until much further down – after another nutritional comparison, in fact – that the company hones in on the environmental impact of beef. The tactic seems to be to keep quiet and to keep cutting carbon and the results from sales of meat alternatives suggest it’s working.



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