On reflection: Carbon labels

THEY WERE hot news under Labour, out in the cold when Cameron came in – but the idea hasn’t been abandoned completely. 


Foodservice Footprint Post-It-Notes1-300x168 On reflection: Carbon labels Features Features  WRAP Tesco Produce Sustainability Forum Pepsico Nicky Chambers Labour Conservative government Integrity and Protection Institute of Food Safety Institute Eunomia DEFRA Darran Messem









Carbon labels were all the rage a few years back. Who could forget Sir Terry Leahy’s commitment in 2007, as CEO of Tesco, to footprint and label the supermarket’s entire product range? The government was pretty keen on the idea too – in the same year it launched a label using a standardised measurement method under the PAS 2050 standard. The Carbon Trust was behind the scheme. Darran Messem, the trust’s managing director for certification, says: “DEFRA was apparently particularly keen on it at the time.”


Times have changed. In 2007 there was a Labour government, with ministers who seemingly grasped the importance of meat consumption in relation to climate change (DEFRA even launched a website – now nowhere to be found – highlighting the links). Businesses were also keen to wear their sustainability on their sleeves.


“We are proud to be leading the way on sustainability footprint,” said PepsiCo UK in 2010. “The carbon reduction logo is a public commitment to reducing our carbon year on year and ensures that we work hard to find innovative ways of making efficiencies at every step of our supply chain.”


By then there were carbon labels on £2 billion worth of products, including PepsiCo’s Walkers crisps and Quaker oats. But the recession had well and truly begun to bite too. And there was a new government in place, selling itself as the “greenest”, though proving to be anything but. Carbon labelling was one of a number of schemes that came unstuck.


Some doubted it would ever have caught on anyway. “First, it’s incredibly expensive to do an analysis to a level where you can say my product is better than yours,” says Nicky Chambers, a strategy adviser at Anthesis Consulting. “Second, consumers are largely not interested. And third, unless the label is mandated by law, then you’re never going to get more than one label per category – and that’s the best in class.”


This all certainly did for Tesco’s ambitious project – it struggled to reach 1,000 analyses by 2011 and the following year pulled the plug.


The supermarket had also become frustrated by the lack of interest from competitors and other food brands. Judging from its website, it’s around that time that PepsiCo’s interest – at least regarding public-facing footprints – waned.


But that doesn’t mean that carbon footprinting has disappeared too. Rather, the emphasis has shifted. “From my experience the work is now going on behind closed doors,” explains Simon Hann, a lifecycle analysis specialist with consultants Eunomia. “Businesses are using these analyses to find carbon hotspots in their ranges and processes” rather than to footprint every single product.


PepsiCo has done just that, according to Messem. Rather than look at a product-level footprint for Tropicana, for example, Messem’s team will work with the manufacturer to produce a model of all its drinks. This brings the cost per product down to pounds rather than thousands of pounds, he says. Chambers adds: “It’s about where the biggest reduction in carbon can be made for the smallest investment.”


The government is also pushing what it regards as this simpler, more cost-effective approach through its Produce Sustainability Forum, run by the Waste & Resources Action Programme. A shortlist of priority products and priority impacts within grocery supply chains was published last year, along with actions to cut carbon in these hot spots. It’s unclear what has happened since.


Though the grocery sector has gone off the idea of product labelling and footprinting, there could well be opportunities for those in foodservice. The sector has been “a little slow off the mark”, Messem says, but being able to flag the environmental impact of certain menus, and even meals, could provide a USP in tenders. It’s “very straightforward” to do a calculation for a meal and that kind of information could be particularly useful to clients, he adds.


The fact that all this heavy lifting – that is, the analyses and in turn meaningful reductions – has been carried out behind closed doors also means that there’s no need to confuse diners with labels and grams of carbon. Instead the communication and marketing can focus on creating the “brand warmth” that comes with taking action, says Chambers.


A longer version of this article was first published as Have carbon labels come unstuck? by the Institute of Food Safety, Integrity and Protection. It has been published here with permission.