What are the challenges of environmental labelling in food?

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

What hurdles do developers of eco and carbon labels face? GettyImages/sergeyryzhov
What hurdles do developers of eco and carbon labels face? GettyImages/sergeyryzhov

Related tags eco-labels

The European Commission is planning to propose a sustainable food labelling network, yet must first address several key challenges, suggests Professor Matthias Finkbeiner, Chair of Sustainable Engineering at Technical University Berlin.

As part of its pledge to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the European Commission is preparing to table a sustainable food labelling framework. The aim is to ‘empower consumers’ and help them ‘make sustainable food choices’.

However, developing environmental food labels is not without its challenges. “It’s often easier to have the right intention, than [do] the right action,” ​explained Professor Matthias Finkbeiner, Chair of Sustainable Engineering at Technical University Berlin.

So what hurdles do developers of eco and carbon labels face?

Does harmonisation risk proliferation?

Across the EU, support is building for a single harmonised environmental label. At a recent European Food Forum (EFF) event, for example, snacks and beverage giant PepsiCo voiced its support​ for an EU-wide harmonised environmental labelling scheme.

“Consumers are…increasingly interested in knowing more about the environmental footprint of food and beverage products in particular,” ​said Gloria Gabellini, Director of Environmental Policy at PepsiCo. “And of course, we believe that they have the right to expect transparency from producers. So in general, we support the concept of environmental labelling.”

label Danilin
Currently, hundreds of eco-labels for food and beverage exist across the bloc. GettyImages/Danilin

While it is clear to Professor Finkbeiner that ‘everyone loves harmonisation’, he told the same EFF conference that harmonisation comes with its own challenges.

As it stands, ‘hundreds’ of eco-labels for food and beverage products exist, ranging from RSPO to Fairtrade, FSC and the EU Ecolabel. But for argument’s sake, Professor Finkbeiner told delegates to imagine there were just 14 competing standards on the market.

If 14 is deemed too many, and it is decided that one universal logo be developed to ‘make everyone happy’, the professor said that in reality, the opposite would occur: proliferation.

“What would happen in reality is that soon we would have 15 competing standards,” ​he explained. “So there really is a dilemma, that we are all advocating for harmonisation, we try to improve things and put another label out, and then in reality we are doing proliferation.”

If proliferation is a primary concern, the answer, according to Professor Finkbeiner, is mandatory labelling. “I don’t know whether mandatory labels are better, but it’s the only way to control proliferation.”

Defining product definitions

Another key question developers face when designing an environmental label for food is: How will product groups be defined?

Ideally, eco and climate labels will help consumers compare products to make more sustainable food choices. A ‘green’ label may indicate that a product is more environmentally friendly than a ‘red’ label, for example.

“But what if you are a steak lover who eats steak for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but still want to be ‘green’?” ​queried Professor Finkbeiner. In this case, the consumer may want to know which steak is ‘greener’, to avoid purchasing the ‘red’ option.

In this example, the consumer will want the environmental label product group to be ‘meat’ or ‘red meat’.

carbon Christian Horz
The European Commission is preparing to table a sustainable food labelling network. GettyImages/Christian Horz

On the other end of the spectrum, a vegan may want to compare the environmental impact of plant-based proteins. In this situation, the product group would be ‘plant-based protein’.

And if you are an omnivore, you may want the subject group to be simply ‘protein’. This would mean incorporating all proteins – both animal- and plant-based – in the same category. It could turn be that in this instance, plant-based proteins are given a ‘green’ label, and meat products a ‘red’.

From a policy perspective, such a scheme could be suggesting consumers avoid eating meat. “But then you give no guidance to the vegan and no guidance to the meat eater about what they should select,” ​explained Professor Finkbeiner.

Alternatively, if the labelling scheme is designed around product groups (such as ‘red meat’ and ‘plant-based protein’), the academic warmed ‘you may end up with…a ‘green’ meat and a ‘red’ pea.

“In that sense, it is difficult to judge. You don’t know which of these product group definitions is more effective at the end of the day in really leading to more environmental improvements. And in reality, this discussion leads to strange product group definitions.”

Measuring ‘success’

Defining and measuring the success of an eco-label presents another challenge. Should the focus be on environmental success? “What really is the tangible reduction of environmental burden that we get from an eco-label?” ​asked the professor.

Unfortunately, establishing correlation between an eco-label and environmental issues is ‘almost impossible’, he continued. And with academic research on eco-labelling being close to ‘non-existent’, more facts and knowledge – and less agenda – is required.

Conversely, should the ‘success’ of an eco-label relate to the market? “Is it the economic success or the increased market demand for greener products? Is it the consumer success – that we can really observe that consumer patterns are changed?”

Admitting that has has ‘no perfect solution’, and is simply offering ‘food for thought’, the academic told delegates a ‘proper eco-label characterisation’ is required to identify the quality level of an eco-label.

“We need to better understand the real environmental benefits, as well as the market relevance of eco-labels. We also have to think about new ways of purchasing and new concepts in innovation.”

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