Environmental labelling will only work if it takes a standardised approach

The promise of environmental labelling is in the spotlight again, following the recent publication of a new University of Oxford study which analysed over 57,000 food and drink products in the UK & Ireland.

Research has consistently shown that consumers want to adopt more sustainable diets, and that they want more help and information in identifying sustainable products. This is similar to what we have seen with front-of-pack nutritional labelling, with consumers keen to understand the nutritional content of their food and to compare products on shelves. But while on-pack guidance isn’t new nor are its benefits contested (look at the achievements of nutritional traffic light labelling, for example), exactly how a standardised environmental labelling scheme could work is still up for debate.

The influx of investment and research in environmental labelling in recent years is certainly a welcome move, helping to develop and refine methodologies to ensure labelling can be an impactful intervention. Foundation Earth and IGD have schemes underway in the UK, whilst in France, the government is due to issue an official French methodology by the end of 2023. Such methodology will be the basis to implement a voluntary environmental labelling scheme with a mid-term ambition to have it mandatory at the French level. Several UK and EU retailers have also implemented a test-phase for environmental labels in stores, while the EU is due to issue its harmonised environmental impact methodology by the end of the year.

To drive genuine change, a harmonised approach to environmental labelling is vital. We need environmental labelling with an agreed consensus on science-based criteria and methodology, and a consumer-friendly form of expression, or we risk creating consumer confusion (and disengagement) and wasting time and resources that could be spent building a sustainable food system sooner rather than later.

At Danone, we’re committed to supporting our consumers in their move towards healthier and more sustainable diets, and we know that providing information about the environmental impact of the products they buy will be an integral part of the transition to a more sustainable food system. We are currently exploring environmental labelling schemes in the UK, Belgium, France, and Germany to better understand and support their design, whilst also being part of the discussions at UK and European levels on the core principles for a future harmonised environmental labelling scheme.

For us, there are a number of important criteria that a harmonised environmental label should meet. Most importantly it needs to be science-based, transparent and consumer friendly. It needs to be holistic, considering a product’s impact right along the supply chain from cradle to grave and taking into account wider environmental indicators beyond carbon emissions. Environmental labelling should also help to foster a dietary shift towards more plant-rich diets, as well as recognising sustainable production practices.

With Deloitte estimating that almost half of consumers find a lack of information to be a barrier to adopting a more sustainable lifestyle, the case for consumer-friendly environmental labelling has never been clearer. Environmental labelling will help food companies to substantiate the environmental impact of their products, reducing greenwashing and offering transparent information to allow consumers to make their own decisions at the point of purchase.

Of course, we mustn’t make the mistake of assuming environmental labelling is purely a consumer-facing intervention. Its biggest impact will come in encouraging manufacturers to improve their product’s environmental impact across the value chain. So, it’s even more important that a successful scheme is harmonised across the UK and the EU, in order to encourage wider supply chain improvements and consistency across the board.

The results of the Oxford study are certainly promising, and with a continued collaborative approach we could well be on our way to a standardised environmental labelling scheme that truly empowers consumers to make more sustainable choices and drives manufacturers to provide those improved choices. Until then, Danone and others must continue innovating and pushing forward on product portfolio renewal, reformulations, reductions in packaging, and improved supply chain practices in order to both encourage positive behavioural change and to meet the growing consumer demand for transparency on environmental sustainability.

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