From calories to climate: Are carbon labels for food and drink about to go mainstream?

EXCLUSIVE: Chris Skidmore’s Net-Zero Review recommends standardized ecolabelling for as many products as possible within two years. With leading food and drink brands already showing carbon next to calories, could this sector be the first?

From calories to climate: Are carbon labels for food and drink about to go mainstream?

Tenzing believes it was the world's first energy drink brand to carbon label

The Review, published earlier this month, sets out more than 120 recommendations for policy recommendations to deliver a more ‘pro-growth, pro-business’ pathway to net-zero by 2050. While many recommendations relate to energy and industrial infrastructure, Skidmore also accounts for the need to better engage and inform the general public, flagged by the Public Accounts Committee.

One engagement-related recommendation is the implementation of standardized environmental labelling on as many product categories as possible by 2025. This includes ecolabels on things like lightbulbs, which the Government is keen on, and on consumer goods including food and drink. Skidmore noted that agriculture’s share of UK emissions is set to grow to 30% by 2030 without intervention, including changes to our diets.

Some British businesses are already ahead of the curve. Broadcaster Sky announced this week that it will roll out carbon labelling at all 29 of its staff restaurants and café’s across all 15 of its UK sites. Collectively, these sites host around 25,000 employees – and it is Sky’s hope that the change will encourage them to choose more sustainable options by clearly signposting what, exactly, these are.

While there are not many corporates providing carbon labels on staff meals, the practice of carbon labelling is becoming increasingly popular for catering firms with contracts with some of the UK’s most popular sports and music events and tourist attractions, like Benugo and Compass Group.

Carbon Labelling is also starting to catch on at some restaurants, like Wahaca, and, perhaps to a greater extent, with some of the packaged food and drink you can purchase at supermarkets.

You may have seen a carbon label on Flora or Proactiv spreads; vegan or vegetarian products from Quorn Foods or cartons of Oatly’s plant-based milk alternatives.

Indeed, there seems to be something of a second wind for labelling on groceries after a largely failed movement a decade ago. You may remember seeing some ecolabels in Tesco between 2008 and 2012 before the supermarket dropped plans for labelling all own-brand lines, citing the sheer amount of legwork. Now, the mantle has been taken up by third-party brands.

A new generation of first movers

Oatly, the company’s head of sustainability for the UK and Benelux region Shaunagh Duncan tells edie, first started adding carbon labels to packaging in 2018 and chose Europe rather than the US as its first market.

Explaining the brand’s willingness to add labels in the absence of regulation and legislation – and, therefore, a standardized way to display carbon – she says: “Consumers have the right to this information, just like they do to price information, calories, nutrition and so on.”

The Carbon Trust has found that two-thirds of shoppers in Europe either actively want carbon information on products, or think it would be a generally good idea.

Duncan adds: “We don’t have time to wait around for the market to agree on a way to do this – it’s clear this will take a very long time. We wanted to get going. We knew we weren’t going to get it right first time.”

It can be hard to know how to ‘get it right’ when carbon calculation itself is something of, as Duncan calls it, an “imperfect science”. Imperfection can lie in a lack of supply chain visibility, leading to a reliance on industry average figures, for example.

Add data challenges to the lack of standardisation and it can be hard for brands to know where to start. But, as Duncan says, some just want to get started.

Oatly has opted to label packaging with the total absolute carbon footprint of the whole carton. The company works with Carbon Cloud to calculate this footprint at least once every two years, or more frequently if there has been a “substantial” change in the value chain, such as a factory move, a change in transport plans or the installation of new technologies which reduce emissions.

This is a resource-intensive process and has been coupled with extensive external engagement work with other brands and with policymakers. “These numbers mean nothing unless consumers have something to compare them with,” Duncan says, explaining Oatly’s drive to get more brands to follow in its footsteps – whether on a voluntary or mandatory basis.

The brand has been running a ‘show us your numbers’ campaign in Germany, getting customers to sign a petition asking for mandatory and standardised carbon labelling. More than 50,000 signed and Oatly representatives are set for meetings in Berlin this year.

Duncan emphasises that now could be a key moment in which to get this message through across the EU. The European Commission is pushing ahead with mandatory labels detailing ‘Product Environmental Footprint’ on a range of goods, including food. The labels would detail the lifecycle impact of a product or business across the value chain. As expected, a range of industries have vested interests in how this labelling scheme would work. Duncan has witnessed the dairy and meat sectors lobbing for a carbon intensity label linked to calories or protein, rather than an absolute carbon label. Oatly is, as expected, pushing back against this.

Beyond engaging policymakers at this key moment, ‘show us your numbers’ also served as a “call to arms” for other brands, Duncan adds. Policymakers are doubtless looking to brands to measure appetite for labelling at all, and to assess best-practice in what kind of information labels should convey and how.

Sharing the message, sharing the knowledge

Another drinks producer carbon labelling its products – and advocating for industry peers to do the same – is energy drink challenger Tenzing.

Tenzing was founded in 2016 by Huib Van Bockel, who tells edie that “sustainability has always been at the core of its products and brands” but that it did not have the resources to carbon label from the get-go.

Van Bockel says: “As soon as we got bigger and had more money to spend, we went further and further. We started carbon labelling in 2021.”

Unlike Oatly, Tenzing does not label the absolute carbon footprint per unit of packaged drink. It has opted, instead, to convey the absolute carbon footprint per kilogram “from crop to can”, as Van Bockel puts it. Tenzing uses a third party, Carbon Cloud, to calculate its emissions. There is more information on which ingredients and value chain stages contribute to Tenzing products on a special website powered by Carbon Cloud, for extra-curious consumers.

But, like Oatly, Tenzing’s staff are passionate about getting other brands to carbon label. Just months after it launched its own carbon labels, it hosted a pop-up shop in London along with other first movers in this space.

Given that the pop-up ran through November and the aim was to raise awareness of this topic, Van Bockel’s team called the event ‘Knowvember’. For 2022, Knowvember was evolved from a shop to a summit, also in London, plus a month-long online campaign.

Van Bockel explains: “At the end of the day, I think most people do want to make sustainable choices. At the moment, bar going vegan or not flying – these are two big things people often talk about – there is confusion on what to do. There are loads of differences between the carbon footprints of different products [in the same categories]. People have no way of knowing what these differences are.

“Changing this is why we launched Knowvember. We want to make carbon labelling a thing that everyone should do.

“Companies should take full responsibility and then give customers the chance to choose based on this. I think many are shying away, they are too scared to be transparent about their footprint.”

We know, though, that moral imperative or even following an industry trend will not compel all brands to act. Van Bockel is, therefore, in favour of government intervention for mandatory labelling to “give people the choice, meaningfully”.

“It should not be that difficult for the Government to say ‘everyone has to carbon label within two years’, for instance,” he says, comparing the carbon labelling movement at present to the early days of calorie labelling which is “arguably more complex”. There, people want to know calories from fat, carbohydrate, and so on.

Oatly’s Duncan is perhaps a little more cynical on timeframes. “Sometimes you have to submit artwork as much as three years ahead before you end up with products in that packaging,” she notes. “Add onto that actually calculating the numbers, and it’s a long process.”

Beyond the complexities of work behind-the-scenes at brands, she also points to weak policy appetite in the UK.

“Defra seemed to be interested but previously looked into this and said they weren’t going to do it,” Duncan says.

Only time will tell whether minds in Whitehall will be swayed by Skidmore’s Net-Zero Review recommendation. The UK Government technically has until the end of March to update its Net-Zero Strategy, as ordered by the High Court. It is likely to respond to the Review before this update is published.

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