Trend Watch: Carbon Labeling

Trend Watch: Carbon Labeling

July 21, 2021
Annette Maggi

By RDBA Executive Director Annette Maggi, MS, RDN, LD, FAND

Thirty percent of consumers indicate that environmental sustainability is more important in their food purchase decisions than it was ten years ago, according to the 2020 IFIC Food and Health Survey. More than 40 percent indicate knowing a manufacturer is committed to producing a food in an environmentally sustainable way impacts buying habits. Based on this consumer interest, carbon labeling is emerging as a method for food companies to provide information on sustainability.

Carbon labeling is used as a way for shoppers to lower their carbon footprint, defined as the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of an individual, organization or community. You as an individual have a carbon footprint as does your retailer as a company. While food production impacts carbon footprint, it is not a major contributor. Comparatively, having one less child (58.6 tCO2e emission reductions/year), not owning a car 2.4 tCO2e emission reductions/year, and forgoing air (1.6 tCO2e emission reductions/year) have a significantly greater impact on an individual’s carbon footprint than adopting a plant-based eating plan (0.8 tCO2e emission reductions/year) or other similar dietary choices.

Despite the lesser impact of plant-based eating, food choices are something the individual can change, allowing them to feel like they are making an impact. This is clear in the increased interest in sustainable food production, leading to a growth in carbon labeling by restaurants and food manufacturers.

Just Salads, a fast casual restaurant with locations in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, Florida, North Carolina, and Dubai, was the first to actively promote carbon labeling. On their menu, diners have the option to sort by various tribes, one of which is “climatarian.” These menu options have the lowest carbon footprint of all their salads, as measure in tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e). Oatly provides carbon information on their labels, and according to their 2019 sustainability report, had the information on 119 of their products. The report also indicates that Oatly believes carbon labeling should be required. In 2020, Quorn, the biggest meat alternative brand in the world, started providing carbon footprint data for 60 percent of their product volume.

Measuring the carbon footprint of a menu item or multi-ingredient food sold in a grocery store is complicated. All inputs, such as water usage, processing, and energy use are measured for raw materials, in the manufacturing and distribution processes, at retail, in the consumer home, and for disposal and/or recycling. It’s a matrix of numbers and measurements that can shift based on geographic source of ingredients, location of the retailer, and more.

A key complexity for the entire industry is providing relevance for the consumer. What exactly does a salad with 0.27 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) mean exactly? How does that compare to driving a car on routine erands for a day? Or using the air conditioning at home? Adding to the complexity are the myriad of different versions of “carbon labeling.” Carbon Trust, an organization that does the measurement for companies, offers a variety of message options for use on products including CO2 Measured, Reducing CO2, Lower CO2, and Carbon Neutral. Clearly, this adds confusion not clarity. It’s important to note that carbon labeling is not currently regulated and there is not standardization in the calculations or messaging.

As sustainability continues as a priority value for consumers when food shopping, it’s likely that carbon labeling will continue to grow in interest and presence on food labels, creating an opportunity for private label brands and consumer education by retail RDs.

Source: Wynes, Seth; Nicholas, Kimberly A (2017). "The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions"Environmental Research Letters12 (7): 074024.