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Ethical business   |   Biodiversity   |   Net zero   |   Animal welfare

Eco labels are complex but could encourage change

Stroll around your local supermarket or farm shop and there are no shortage of environmental prompts and reassurances. From grass-reared beef and organic eggs to Rainforest Alliance-assured tea, locally-grown tomatoes and plastic-free fruit. There is something to ease every shopper’s eco-anxieties. Or is there?

Amid this cacophony of eco-cues, one – and arguably the most important one – has been missing. Greenhouse gas emissions, presented in the form of a carbon footprint label, are pretty much invisible to shoppers. Until now.

Last week, we got sight of a new eco-labelling scheme that will be piloted in September on brands including Costa, Naked Bacon, Abel & Cole and M&S. Each product will be rated from A+ to G, a sliding scale from low environmental impact to high. Carbon footprint is the most important factor (49 per cent weighting), but the score also takes account of water usage (17 per cent), water pollution (17 per cent) and biodiversity loss (17 per cent).

It’s loosely designed on the traffic-light labels we’ve got used to for nutritional information – so you’ll be able to see whether a product is ‘green’ at a glance. “We're going to put the scores on whether they're good, bad or ugly [and] some of them will be pretty ugly,” Jago Pearson from Naked Bacon told me. “But our consumers deserve to know.”

This is key. A handful of products have been adding carbon footprints to their packs but it’s those who know their figures are low – the plant-based brands like Quorn or Oatly. If this labelling scheme takes off – and it’s backed by some pretty big hitters in industry and academia – then it won’t only allow you to compare beans with bacon but bacon with bacon.

Of course, this could throw up some intriguing results. Bacon from an intensively-reared pig might actually score better than an outdoor-bred one. What’s more important: animal welfare (not included in the new label) or environmental impact? We, as consumers, will need to decide. Can we be expected to do that?

Foundation Earth
A new eco-label is responding to consumer desire for more transparency and sustainable choices. Image Foundation Earth. 

Those involved in the new scheme – which is being run by a new non-profit organisation called Foundation Earth, the brainchild of the late food entrepreneur and founder of Finnebrogue Artisan, Denis Lynn – say wrapping more than environmental impacts into one score is too complicated.

However, there is already a scheme in Europe, called Eco-score, which is actually doing just that. Products are given a score from A to E. This starts with a life cycle analysis (LCA) of the environmental impacts but additional points can be won or lost depending on provenance, animal welfare standards and fair pay. One of the milks available scores 54 out of 100 for its LCA, for instance, but then gets bonus points for being organic and 100 per cent Belgian, then loses points for its hard-to-recycle packaging.

Eco-score, which isn’t available in the UK yet, arguably provides a more rounded sustainability score (or what the founder Shafik Asal calls a “solid and feasible” score). Tens of thousands of products in Carrefour, Lidl and Colruyt (a Belgium retailer) have the score alongside them on the websites or supermarket app. Some are starting to appear on packs.

However, the LCA data isn’t very accurate. What Foundation Earth wants to do – and let’s be clear eco-labelling food is a competitive space currently – is drill down to the data on individual products. That’s exciting given that you could pick up two those packs of bacon with very different scores. British could also come out better.

“A steak from South America from cleared rainforest will be reported as substantially more impactful than a steak from a UK-based farmer with natural pastures, hedgerows, and low impact feedstocks,” Jason Barrett, from Mondra, the tech firm helping develop the Foundation Earth scheme, told me in 2018.

Indeed, this scheme has been a long time in the making. Whether this level of analysis is possible for thousands of products remains debatable (Tesco wanted to assess just the carbon emissions from all its products but gave up). 

Professor Chris Elliott from Queen’s University Belfast (who led the UK government’s review into the horsemeat scandal) is leading a panel of experts from the UK, Belgium and Spain to come up with a robust scoring method for wider rollout of the new eco label over here. This won’t be ready in time for the pilot – that is really to see whether shoppers like the idea, and how they use the labels.

Almost nine in 10 of us, according to a Eurobarometer survey, apparently want information like this to be on our food and drink. But how it’s presented, what data is used and whether it actually shifts behaviour continue to be hotly debated. There is an argument that the food industry just needs to get on with this (the government has no interest in developing a scheme). So Foundation Earth and Eco-score are both doing just that. They are not perfect but they could help us make better choices.

More importantly, however, these labels will force food companies to change their products and their sourcing. Few will want to score ‘red’ so they’ll have to ‘reformulate’ – exactly as makers of dishwashers and fridges have had to rethink their products because of mandatory energy labels. Both Eco-score and Foundation Earth are voluntary schemes and some brands will be very reluctant to take part. But if this pace continues it won’t be long before a bad score is seen as better than no score.

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    David_Burrows

    David Burrows is a writer and researcher specialising in sustainability (within the food industry in particular). He writes for titles including Footprint, Ends Report, Just-Food and The Grocer, on everything from packaging and labelling to diets and deforestation.

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