Can Carbon Labels Make Food Consumption More Sustainable?

25 years ago food packaging started displaying its nutritional contents. It has since become possible to check the calorie, sugar, salt, and fat content of food or drinks. This lead to a change in consumption. According to research, the introduction of nutritional labelling reduced consumers’ intake of calories by almost 7% and total fat by over 10%.

But this isn’t enough for consumers anymore. There’s a demand for another type of food label as people become increasingly concerned about climate change, and conscious of how they’re contributing to it. Recently we have seen examples of food brands adding their carbon footprint to the packaging.  Just Salad recently announced it will display the carbon footprint of every item on its online menu, making it the first restaurant chain in the U.S. to do so. We have also seen similar initiatives from brands like Quorn, Oatly and Upfield.

The carbon lifecycle of a food includes agriculture, such as fertilizers, manures that emit gases, land conversion that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and livestock digestion; transportation, packaging and food processing. According to the research, vegan foods tend to have a lower carbon footprint than animal products. Currently, food production contributes to 26% of global carbon emissions, and there’s no doubt that emissions on this scale are fundamentally changing natural ecosystems, and reducing biodiversity and ecological resilience.

There’s hope that having carbon labels on food will help encourage change on an individual level, and that it will help educate consumers to eat a more environmentally friendly diet. One study found that the labels showing environmental information improved the carbon footprint of a person’s diet by around 5%, compared to standard food labels.

Adding a carbon footprint indicator to a product can help to clarify the environmental impact. But…. there are two concerns. First of all, just how tangible is this figure on the pack of your oatmilk?​

As long as is there is no generally accepted standard the figures remain vague. Consumers have no conception of .35 KG CO2 E/KG means. A standard maximum daily ‘intake’ advice could be helpful, just as most of us know that we need to keep calories below 2.000/2.500.

Second, there is no comparison possible as long as products that you want to compare to are not labeled. If brands want consumers to make more sustainable choices the carbon footprint of all the option that are compared should be available. As long as there is no legal obligation to mention the carbon footprint of a product only the brands with a favourable carbon footprint will mention it on their packaging, making it seems like yet another ‘quality stamp’. And this might eventually lead to more confusion instead of clarity for consumers.

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