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Following COP26, calls are growing for businesses to tackle climate change and take a stand on improving sustainability in the UK. The food and drink industry can lead the way in Britain’s net zero strategy, yet one issue that remains at the heart of this strategy is consumer education.
More shoppers than ever before are looking for concrete ways to reduce their carbon footprint, and altering their food and drink habits offers a simple solution, in theory. However, the reality of calculating the environmental impact of food and drink products is not so straightforward “The carbon footprint of food items is very complex, covering lots of different factors like farming methods, transportation, packaging and even cooking,” said Anya Doherty, CEO of Foodsteps, a carbon footprint assessment company.
“Synthesising all of this information can be overwhelming for consumers, and leads to a tendency to overly focus on just one area of emissions, most commonly transportation,” she told Speciality Food. Businesses like Foodsteps are fighting to make carbon labelling the norm in the food industry, which would make these choices easier for consumers. “Having labels can help bring all of this information together into a single score that makes it accessible for everyone, whether or not they have any prior knowledge of the emissions of different foods,” she adds.
Carbon labels have already had significant support from the public. Two-thirds of consumers support carbon labelling on products, a 2020 survey by YouGov for The Carbon Trust revealed. Two-thirds of consumers also said they are more likely to think positively about a brand that could demonstrate it had lowered the carbon footprint of its products. And shoppers are willing to put their money where their mouth is: another study in 2013 found that consumers would pay a premium of nearly 5% for a steak that was labelled as producing 20% less carbon.
Carbon labels are gaining mainstream popularity, too. They were central to discussions at The Carbon Food Conference, which was held recently in London. Professionals gathered to discuss the importance of carbon transparency and labelling in demystifying carbon literacy, and Sion Davies of Coomb Farm in Carmarthenshire revealed that while farmers are making strides, the work is not yet being recognised as it should. For instance, the farm’s low carbon footprint has not received the price recognition that the industry provides for products from farms that are organic or grass-fed.
The creation of carbon labels is also part of a game-changing set of demand from the next generation. Young people across Europe have called for EU-wide changes to transform the food system to be more sustainable, including defining uniform labelling guidelines. The food innovation community EIT Food has worked closely with 10 innovators aged 18-24, who have developed a Menu for Change with six priority demands for the food system to improve access to healthy, sustainable and affordable food.
As well as demanding the promotion of regenerative agriculture and making food systems more inclusive, they are calling on European food sector stakeholders to define uniform EU nutrition and labelling guidelines which are easy and accessible, meet individuals’ needs and include the environmental impact of food products.
Research by EIT Food has revealed that nearly eight in 10 young people across Europe think we need to take urgent action to make the way we produce and consume food more sustainable. Two-thirds of those surveyed across the UK, France, Germany, Poland and Spain said they believe our current food system is destroying the planet. “Transitioning to a better, more resilient European food system requires urgent change and innovation across the food value chain - from farmers, manufacturers, and retailers to governments, NGOs and consumers,” said Júlia Montoliu Boneu, one of EIT Food’s FutureFoodMakers.
For fine food retailers, carbon labels could be a key sales tool in promoting sustainable and speciality products and local, artisan producers. For producers, they would help those aiming to prove their eco credentials with no fear of greenwashing. Across the industry, carbon labels could have significant impacts. “Environmental labelling of food products is needed to drive the essential transition to a net zero food industry. Labelling can help both consumers and producers to move towards lower emissions food,” Anya told Speciality Food. “For example, consumers can select products with lower carbon emission, and producers can start to make changes to their production systems to lower emissions on farms and in supply chains.”
When it comes to sustainability, understanding the problem at hand is key to solving it. Innovations like carbon labels could turn the tide in favour of sustainable products and benefit the independent retailers who have been the early champions of these causes.