Unilever, which has 75,000 products including Magnum ice cream, pot noodles, Hellmann’s pot and mayonnaise, said the carbon footprint of 30,000 of those products would be measured within six months, with labels of ‘carbon footprint on a selected range by the end of 2021..
The labels will be tested on up to two dozen products in Europe or North America and could grace UK supermarket packaging by the end of 2022. Unilever said it plans to badger its entire product line with the label. over the next two to five years and also launched the idea that supermarkets create ‘carbon neutral or eco-friendly’ aisles, just like they have ‘vegetarian aisles’, to help consumers make greener choices.
This is the first initiative by a global player to introduce carbon footprint labeling and could disrupt supply chains in the food industry, forcing other companies to align or accelerate their plans. It comes as Boris Johnson’s food czar Henry Dimbleby has recommended a move towards consistent labeling that shows the environmental impact of products. The national food strategy, released Thursday, said the Food Standards Agency should work with government and industry agencies to “develop a harmonized and consistent food labeling system.”
He said: “Creating a simple and consistent labeling method would ensure that all stores and manufacturers give us the same type of information about our food. Having to record information on the environmental impact of food production could also influence how manufacturers manufacture their products.
Last month, Marks & Spencer and Costa Coffee agreed to pilot an “eco traffic light style” label on certain private label products from September. The label, developed by scientists at the University of Oxford and launched by the non-profit group Foundation Earth, will be graded in levels marked A through G and color-coded – green for the most environmentally friendly and red. the least. It will involve 13 brands, including the meat brand Naked, and they hope to follow through on the pilot by expanding into Europe next year.
Previously, carbon footprint labels were only used by plant-based companies, such as Quorn Foods and Oatly.
Marc Engel, Global Supply Chain Manager, Unilever, said: “We are halfway to ‘knowing’ what the carbon footprint of our product line is and we believe now is the time to start. to show “. Our market research shows that young consumers in particular are very affected by climate change and want to use their buying behavior to send a message. We intend to roll out carbon labels across our entire product line over the next two to five years and believe this will transform not only the actions of consumers, but also those of the thousands of companies in our chain. supply.
Sam Blunt, director of global marketing operations for Quorn Foods, said announcing labels by the end of 2021 was “exciting,” adding, “A company of this size could really get things done and make a big difference. difference, especially if they drive fast. labeling across their entire product portfolio.
With about a third of global greenhouse gas emissions coming from the food industry, according to the United Nations, carbon footprint labels allow consumers to quickly assess a product’s climate impact. Measured in carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), it shows the environmental cost from farm to fork, taking into account fertilizer use, energy needs, transportation, processing, refrigeration and packaging.
But arguments about what data to include on the label – as well as underlying concerns about the accuracy of that data – still divide opinion behind the scenes.
The British Retail Consortium, the trade body representing UK retailers, warned that ‘capturing all the data to generate an accurate and scientifically reliable label is complex – and we are not there yet for the full range of retail products’.
Its sustainability manager, Peter Andrews, said: “Take a simple product like blueberries. The carbon impact fluctuates depending on whether they are matured indoors or in the open field, which is itself a meteorological factor, unpredictable. There is still a lot of data to be collected before consumers can hold up two bags of rice or two brands of beef burgers and make a wise choice between them based on the carbon labels.
“We believe carbon labels will play an important role in helping everyone adopt a more low-carbon lifestyle, but trust in a label is essential and that means the data supporting it has to be strong. “
The label itself is controversial, and different forms have been launched: either an exact footprint measurement shown as a CO2e value – although critics say this might be difficult for the public to understand – or a fireworks system. easier circulation. The additional question – whether the label should only calculate carbon emissions or take into account broader environmental issues such as biodiversity and water use – also divides the room. Andrews said: “A single, universal approach to labeling is essential to enable the public to compare products of different brands. A proliferation of labels would not help.
But Unilever’s Engel said: “We think speed is important to generate momentum and we intend to improve accuracy along the way. For the data, we’ll use a combination of industry averages taken from approved databases with actual carbon measurements where we have them, such as with our Ben & Jerry’s range. We believe our labels will be approximately 85 percent accurate. Ideally, we want a world where a carbon footprint is as easy to measure as a number of calories, but it took 30 years to standardize calories and we don’t have 30 years to standardize carbon labels.
Unilever “spends millions on focus groups and consumer reviews” before deciding what form its labels will take. “We are looking at a traffic light system supplemented with more precise data on the website, but we are still working on the options as it needs to make sense to consumers,” Engel said.
In contrast, food giant Nestlé, which owns more than 2,000 brands in 186 countries, said focusing exclusively on carbon emissions would be a mistake. Emma Keller, Head of Sustainability, said: “We shouldn’t just use labels to reduce carbon emissions and forget about biodiversity and animal welfare. It is in all of our interests to have an industry-wide, science-led, harmonized labeling approach adopted across Europe. We believe that scientifically sound composite labels will emerge in the years to come and that the Cop26 on climate in November will accelerate the debate, but that we should not rush into it. For it to be effective in reducing emissions and providing transparency and empowerment for consumers, no one should do it alone or go their own way. Collaboration is essential.
Defra, criticized by some in the industry for sitting on his hands, said The independent that he hoped to use his environmental bill “to seek powers to ensure that information on environmental impacts, such as carbon emissions, is provided with certain products” – but gave no deadline to do that or any idea how those powers might work. Defra added that “the need to regulate will be reduced in areas where the industry is already operating.”
Luke Pollard, Shadow Secretary for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “In the midst of a climate and natural emergency, people want to do what they can to help the environment. , but at the moment they don’t have the information to make more sustainable purchasing choices. Labor would show leadership with clearer labeling on carbon and environmental credentials, so people can support brands and products that do the right thing for our planet. “
Engel said, “We have to accept that governments and regulators are going to be late for the party and take action ourselves. “
Food companies agree that winning the public is critical if this is not to end in the same way as Tesco’s botched attempt at carbon labeling in 2011. A Tesco spokesperson said: “We have tested carbon footprint labeling and abandoned it after finding that they had no influence on customers’ purchasing decisions and that the labels were difficult to understand. We learned that we cannot act on transformational change alone and called for collective action across the food industry. “
Today, a decade later, and with climate change gaining more and more prominence on the public agenda, consumers seem hungry for information. A 2020 survey by the Carbon Trust, which launched one of the world’s first carbon footprint certification programs, showed that almost two-thirds of adults in the UK support carbon labels, of which around 80 % in France, Italy and Spain. A recent EU study indicated that 57% of consumers in the bloc were receptive to environmental claims when making purchasing decisions.
Engel said: “Everyone is aligned with the urgency of this situation as well as the need for collaboration. Our point of view is that the more pilots the better. Ultimately, we would have no problem adjusting our label to align with others if it is for the common good. We are not trying to be competitive. We win and lose together on climate change. We agree with Nestlé that we have to work together to get there, but we have to start now. In the debate between speed and perfection, we go for speed and we will refine as we go.