The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Carbon Footprint Food Labels Update

Carbon Footprint Food Labels Update

In the News

December 20, 2009

Climate change is on everyone’s mind these days, and shoppers are making choices accordingly. More and more consumers are seeking out items that are produced sustainably, bringing in their reusable bags and showing an interest in locally grown fare. But will consumers also embrace carbon footprint labels in the new year?

By now, we are all very familiar with the term “carbon footprint,” a measure of the impact our human activities have on the environment in units of carbon dioxide. Driving to work, flying in an airplane, using the air conditioner, and yes, transporting produce across the country and globe are all examples of activities that release greenhouse gases.

A couple of years ago, several organizations popped up with the goal of educating consumers about carbon footprinting and ultimately decreasing its effects by teaching consumers how to calculate their footprint. Carbon footprint food labels take this concept a step further by calculating the global effect of a particular food from garden to table, and displaying that number for all to see on the item in question.   

Carbon footprint food labels appeared last year in Sweden on grocery items and restaurant menus throughout the country. The UK-based Carbon Trust, a private company set up by the British government in 2001 to help UK businesses lower carbon emissions and reduce energy costs, rolled out carbon footprint food labels for big supermarkets like Boots and Tesco. And other countries have plans for similar programs.

Although an earlier survey reported that just 28% of Boots shoppers in the UK knew that a carbon label related to climate change, newer data reveals that customers are becoming more comfortable with using the feature. According to the Carbon Trust, 72% of consumers believe showing the actual number of grams of carbon is important, and 65% are positive that a product label indicating suppliers are working to reduce carbon would make them more likely to buy the product. 

There is a downside to the labels, however. It turns out that the carbon footprints of certain foods are extremely difficult to calculate. A carrot’s footprint, for example, could vary day to month to year, depending on several variables like weather and season, which means that without a bullet-proof standard, carbon footprint food labels could be more of a marketing gimmick than a meaningful way for consumers to make greener choices. 

Still, label success stories do exist. One of the best examples is Walkers Crisps, the third most recognizable brand in Britain. Since the addition of carbon footprint labels on the crisps in 2007, energy use per kg crisps produced has fallen almost 33%. In a recent Walkers survey, 41% of consumers said that carbon footprint labels made them feel more positive toward Walkers as a company; 71% said that labels helped them reduce the carbon footprint of their regular shopping items. Luckily, these are the kinds of numbers that work for both business and the environment.