As pressure builds to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the agri-food chain, and consumer demand grows for environmentally friendly products, ‘greenwashing’ threatens to undermine shoppers’ trust.
In an effort to tackle greenwashing practices in food and drink, the UK’s Environment Agency plans to establish standardised metrics to measure the environment performance of the sector.
A collaborative effort
Greenwashing occurs when an organisation attempts to persuade the public its products, aims and policies are more environmentally friendly than they are.
A recent investigation undertaken by the International Enforcement Network (ICPEN) revealed that four in 10 websites appear to be using greenwashing tactics.
These include vague claims and unclear language, including terms such as ‘eco’ or ‘sustainable’ without adequate supporting evidence. Brands may also ‘greenwash’ by hiding or omitting information, such as a product’s pollution levels, in order to appear more eco-friendly.
The Environment Agency’s initiative is designed to help manufacturers more effectively communicate their environmental performance to the public, reducing the opportunity for greenwashing.
Other players collaborating on the project include the Institute for Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Waste and Resources Action Programme and the British Standards Institute.
The project has received a £195,000 grant from the Regulators’ Pioneer Fund launched by The Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
Specifically, the project aims to simplify the measuring and reporting of key environmental performance areas, including GHG reduction and resource efficiency.
The Environment Agency hopes the initiative will incentivise companies towards greener manufacturing processes and business operations.
“One of the big challenges for food businesses trying to mitigate climate change is how to communicate their environmental performance that goes beyond legal compliance effectively and efficiently,” said project lead Becca Tremain, Environment Agency.
“Different food businesses have developed and adopted various environmental metrics and it can be time-consuming for food businesses to collect data from different supplier systems.
“This project seeks to address this challenge by standardising environmental metrics for food businesses that go beyond legal compliance.
“It aims to provide an effective and efficient solution to enable the automation of environmental performance data transfer across different food businesses.”
The partnership will be working alongside the Institute of Environmental Management and Assessment (IMEA) and trade associations to understand and ensure the feasibility of the metrics, as well as private sector representatives Sainsbury’s, Nestlé, Cranwick, 2 Sisters and Vitacress.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents food and beverage manufacturers in the UK, said on a ‘very broad level’, it supports the Environment Agency’s concept of developing such metrics.
Without such a scheme in place, consumers can struggle to compare the differing environmental claims of different food and drink products, suggested Emma Piercy, Head of Climate Change & Energy Policy at FDF.
“The trouble is that a lot of other people are thinking exactly the same thing, and are now developing their own metrics and methodologies,” she told FoodNavigator. “That is a challenge on a number of levels.”
Not only do the methodologies vary, there is not one ‘aligned industry approach’. This means that neither manufacturers nor consumers are able to compare like-for-like, we were told.
The other problem, Piercy continued, is data. While a variety of different data sources exist, there is no agreed industry approach as to which data sources should be used.
“These two things combined – the multitude of methodologies and the multitude of data sources – means there remains a significant problem for consumers.”
Therefore, while the industry association supports the ‘overall intention’ of the project, in practice it sees more value in working towards an industry aligned approach.
A challenge for manufacturers?
From the manufacturers’ perspective, FDF also foresees challenges in the implementation of such a project.
Due to the ‘multiple methodologies’ for sustainability indices currently available, manufactures are being asked for similar pieces of information – that require slightly different methodologies – which Piercy said can contribute to administrative pressures.
“So there is a problem with the implementation from a manufacturer’s perspective,” we were told.
Further, there are cost implementations, the climate and energy expert continued.
“If you think about [the cost associated with] any labelling, you would have to change your labelling and your packaging depending on who you sell it to and what information they want [to see]. Those are the two main challenges.”