Food giants to trial traffic light ‘eco-labels’ this year

The scheme is preparing for a Europe-wide launch in 2022

The labelling scheme has been launched by new non-profit Foundation Earth – the brainchild of UK meat group Finnebrogue Artisan’s founder Denis Lynn. Lynn died earlier this year in a quadbike accident; his four daughters and Finnebrouge Artisan’s R&D and technical director Declan Ferguson are continuing his mission to “shake-up supply chains and drive innovation”.

The system behind the labels has been developed by researchers at Oxford University and at WWF. It covers the environmental impact of all parts of the upstream value chain for food, including farming, processing, packaging and transportation to stores. An overall grade is given based on carbon footprint, water used, water pollution generated and biodiversity loss. Carbon is weighted at 49% of the overall grade, while the other topics account for 17% each.

This grade is communicated to consumers as a letter and using a traffic light system.

Foundation Earth has already received statements of support from a string of major food brands across the UK and mainland Europe, including Tyson, Nestle, Sainsbury’s, Costa Coffee, Marks & Spencer and VeeTee Rice. Several plant-based brands, such as The Meatless Farm Co and Mighty Pea are also supporting.

Representatives from some of the businesses will sit on Foundation Earth’s advisory group, alongside scientists from the University of Oxford, Queen’s University, KU Leuven University and AZTI. EIT Food is also supporting.

The labels will be piloted on products for several months, beginning this autumn. The hope is to deliver a Europe-wide roll-out in 2022.

“This pan-European scientific project will help us to further develop the concept of communicating the environmental impact of our products, providing us with the opportunity to test environmental footprint methods, learn how different products perform and establish how consumers respond,” Nestle’s European affairs manager Johannes Weber said.

Nestle first revealed that it was considering adding carbon labelling to products in 2019. The business then outlined its plans for halving absolute net emissions by 2030 and bringing them zero by 2050 – a vision backed by more than £2bn of planned investment.

Carbon labelling

Last year, a global survey of 10,000 consumers by The Carbon Trust found that more than two-thirds (68%) support carbon labels. More recently, a survey of more than 2,000 UK adults by digital technology agency 3 Sided Cube found that 68% want to reduce the carbon footprint of their lifestyles, with more than half wanting tech solutions that ‘nudge’ them towards more sustainable options.

Taking note of this trend, several food and drinks companies have launched or expanded efforts to better communicate the environmental impact of products with shoppers in recent months. 

Upfield, which owns brands including Flora, introduced carbon labelling to products for the first time in 2020. It is aiming to have on-pack labels on some 100 million packs by the end of 2021.

Similarly, Quorn Foods made a commitment in January 2020 to add carbon labels to 60% of its products by volume within 12 months. The brand claims that the lifecycle emissions of its Mycoprotein are up to 90% lower than those of beef.

Environmental labelling is also becoming increasingly popular in other consumer-facing sectors. Pilot schemes have been announced in recent times by the likes of Logitech, Allbirds, Klarna and L’Oreal.

Sarah George

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie