Why eco-labelling won’t save the planet

By Flora Southey

- Last updated on GMT

Eco-labels make good sense, but working in isolation they won't save the planet from the climate crisis. GettyImages/zoranm
Eco-labels make good sense, but working in isolation they won't save the planet from the climate crisis. GettyImages/zoranm

Related tags eco-labels ecolabel

Not even the innovators themselves are backing on-pack carbon footprint labelling to save the planet from rising global temperatures. Here's why.

Eco-labels make sense for several reasons. When done right, they can enhance food system transparency; better the reputation of responsible brands; and help inform consumer purchase behaviour.

But eco-labels won’t save the planet from the climate crisis. That’s not the view of few, but of many: various stakeholders, from academia to industry and the not-for-profit sector, agree that eco-labels alone won’t move the needle on global warming.

If the eco-labels themselves aren’t a silver bullet, can they still play a role in shifting the food industry towards more sustainable practices?

Eco-labelling won’t save the world unless widely adopted

Just like nutrition labelling schemes aim to help shoppers recognise the differences in nutritional quality of different food and drink products, eco-labels do the same – but for environmental sustainability.

In recent years, a proliferation of eco-labels has entered the market. There is no one-size-fits-all for eco-labelling. Methodologies differ, with some using life cycle assessments (LCAs) and others turning to product environmental footprints (PEFs). Innovators on the market are using generic data, specific data, and sometimes a mixture of both.

You've lost me. What's LCA, PEC, and generic or specific data?

life cycle assessment (LCA)​ calculates the environmental impact of a product throughout its entire lifecycle, from cradle to grave.

product environmental footprint (PEF) ​also measures the environmental performance of a food or drink throughout its life cycle, but according to specific environmental impacts. These usually include climate change, water use, land use, and toxicity.

Generic data ​can be used by a food operator to easily assess a product’s carbon impact. Generic data relies on country or sector average values.

Specific data​, on the other hand, is sourced directly from suppliers to more accurately reflect the true climate impact of a product.

But despite an influx of eco-labels and carbon footprint calculators coming onto the food and beverage scene, there are too few adopters to truly make a difference. Industry is not moving fast enough, according to Sanne Dekker, manager public affairs, corporate sustainability, at FrieslandCampina.

The Dutch dairy multinational is not yet carrying carbon labelling on its brands – which include Chocomel, Yazoo, and Frico – but publishes the carbon footprint of its raw milk annually using a livestock lifecycle calculation model developed and managed by Wageningen University & Research.

“It’s too voluntary,” said Dekker of eco-labelling at food- and ag-tech conference F&A Next in the Netherlands. “It will help, but because it’s not mandatory it’s not going to save the planet, and is not [being adopted] fast enough to make us move towards 1.5˚C,” she added, referring to the industry-recognised global warming target.

Without enforcing eco-labelling, and without set policy incentives and minimum standards for food and beverage companies to adhere to, industry will lag. “That’s what we’re standing for and pushing. We really want to move forward, but we can’t do it alone.”

Eco-labelling is less about consumers, and more about manufacturers

FrieslandCampina’s Dekker is not alone in this sentiment. Even climate impact researchers and carbon calculation innovators agree that eco-labels alone won’t save the planet.

If eco-labels are perceived solely as a means on informing consumer purchase decisions, then it’s likely they won’t move the needle on climate change. But eco-labels can do so much more than help shoppers find the ‘greener’ product on-shelf, suggested Koen Boone, European Director of The Sustainability Consortium, which works to reduce the environmental footprint of the CPG sector.

“Based on the experience of some retailers that have implemented eco-labelling, but also Nutri-Score, they see a larger effect on the producer level than on the consumer level,” he told delegates at the event.

Sure, there is some impact on consumer purchase decisions; a shopper may opt for a lower carbon footprint product or a Nutri-Score ‘A’ product instead of a ‘C’. But the bigger impact is experienced by food manufacturers, who reformulate ingredients or cut emissions to achieve a more favourable rating.

“Even when consumers don’t directly act, eco-labels have an influence on the reputation of the company. Therefore, there’s also an incentive…to improve the score of the product, because of their reputation.”

nutri-score Tanaonte
Just like Nutri-Score stimulates innovation, so too can eco-labelling at the producer level. GettyImages/Tanaonte

Foundation Earth, an independent non-profit offering front-of-pack ‘Eco Impact’ labelling to food operators, similarly agrees that ‘labels won’t save the world’. But like Boone, it believes that their bigger-picture implications can.

For food manufacturers, the process of understanding their environmental impact helps to stimulate innovation, according to Foundation Earth executive director Cliona Howie. “We have seen it drive change, we’ve seen impact reductions lower, and we’ve seen changes in the supply chain.

“This is a really important tool at the B2B level, not just B2C. Procurement is extremely powerful, all the way down to the farm level.”

Forget about the labels, focus on the data

But encouraging manufacturers to strive for lower carbon scores on-pack is not the most important element of eco-labelling.

That’s according to The Sustainability Consortium’s Boone, who backs eco-labelling data to have the greatest impact.

When data becomes publicly available throughout the supply chain, everyone can use it. That means not just consumers, but also governments to inform policy, industry to financially reward responsible-acting farmers, and even financial service providers to help identify companies’ sustainability risks.

“All those different actors can use the same harmonised information,” stressed Boone. “This development is not only about consumers. There are so many ways the data can be used.”

label Hispanolistic
Eco-label tools can also encourage consumer engagement in retail. GettyImages/Hispanolistic

Markus Linder, co-founder and CEO of PEF service provider Inoqo agrees that ‘eco-labelling alone is not going to save the world’. But also agrees that eco-labelling data has the potential to shift industry towards more sustainable behaviour.

Inoqo sells its software to retailers, and recently partnered with Albert Heijn​ to help the Dutch retailer publish the climate footprint of its private label food and drink products. With the right data in their hands, retailers make a significant impact, suggested the CEO at F&A Next.

For example, supermarkets can choose to stock products that will best help them achieve Scope 3 emission targets, and promote these products to their customers. They can even incentivise shoppers to purchase more sustainable products with reward systems for greater engagement.

“It’s not just about consumers’ day-to-day living. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Much more important is what [retailers] can do upstream in their organisation with that data, as well as with regards to consumer engagement.”

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