Carbon-Labelling Food Products : The future of Consumer Awareness?

Nutritional labels first appeared on UK food products 25 years ago and are now commonplace across the majority of packaged food products bought by consumers. Recently, there has been an increased drive towards a new type of food labelling, not focused on nutritional values, but rather on the climactic impacts of food products. Currently, global food production contributes to just under one-third of carbon emissions worldwide. Could carbon-labeling food products be a step forwards in cutting this down?

Some brands have already adopted measures for carbon-labeling their products. Notably, Oatly, a brand producing vegan oat-milk drinks, as well as Quorn, a meat-substitute producer, include carbon labelling on some products in their ranges. According to an Oatly spokesperson, the brand believes that it is the right of customers to be aware of the environmental impact of their food, just as it is their right to have information on its nutritional value. For those brands that already engage in carbon labelling, the hope is that their actions will encourage a ‘snowball effect’ and push other firms to adopt similar measures. This appears to be working: recently food giant Unilever has also announced that they wish to introduce carbon labels on select ranges of products in some countries this year, and to roll out carbon labelling more broadly in the next 2-5 years, while rival Nestlé has also reportedly commented on considerations for carbon labels on their products.

However, there are numerous difficulties associated with creating and implementing carbon labels. For example, food production chains usually consist of numerous actors and processes from the farmer to the finished product, meaning that it can be challenging to correctly measure a product’s precise carbon footprint. Not only would such a measure require careful monitoring throughout production chains, but it would also need to be calculated in a universal manner across brands if such labelling were to be easy to read for consumers. Carbon calculations would also have to account for seasonal and weather changes within agri-food production chains that may increase or lessen how much energy is used to produce a food product at any one time.

For Unilever’s head of supply chains, Marc Engel, the priority is to begin the process of carbon labelling, and then to move to improving accuracy. “We think our labels will be around 85 per cent accurate”, Engel has commented, cautioning that although the brand would like carbon labelling to be as easily calculable as calorie counts, “it took 30 years to standardise calories, and we don’t have 30 years to standardise carbon labels”.

Indeed, an important consideration is also which units to include on carbon labels, as well as how to present the labels to customers in an understandable way. Some consultancies working on carbon labelling have proposed using traffic light systems not dissimilar to the current nutritional labelling system used in the UK to help facilitate consumer understanding of the labels. Furthermore, many brands believe that increased public awareness on climate change mean that carbon labelling would be welcomed by the public; indeed, one survey has shown that in the UK two thirds of adults would be in favour of carbon labelling on food products. Such public support stands next to calls from the UK government opposition to include carbon labels on food products, as the Labour party shadow secretary on environment, food and rural affairs has spoken out in support of such schemes.

If the impacts of nutrition labelling are anything to go by, then indications seem to point to the fact that carbon labelling would be a successful tool to encourage more consumer awareness on the environmental footprint of supermarket products. Nutritional labelling on food products has reportedly decreased caloric intake of consumers by 7% and total fat consumed by more than 10%; similar numbers would work towards significantly reducing consumer-related impacts on climate and biodiversity.

Current trends seem to show that businesses are taking their own initiative to introduce carbon labelling, which has support from the opposition government in the UK but currently no policy backing from the government in power. Could carbon-labelling be a business-driven strategy to decrease public consumption of environmentally damaging goods, and encourage businesses to reduce the environmental impacts of their production chains? The industry certainly seems to be moving in that direction. Government backing for carbon-labelling schemes through policy changes would be a decisive step in the fight for Net-Zero and further accelerate momentum.


Tamara Moule