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13 Feb 2020

With Quorn announcing that their most popular products will include labelling detailing their carbon footprint, is this the way to connect consumers to the impact of their food? The answer is, unfortunately, complicated.

As the food and drink industry strives to improve its transparency, the move by vegetarian food giant Quorn has been very positively received. Will this herald a new dawn in sustainable food and drink with other brands following suit?

Tesco had tried to pioneer carbon footprint labelling in 2007, and was ambitiously hoping to include information on all 70,000 products that they sold. However five years later the programme was scrapped with the retailer saying that calculating the footprints was too complicated, and that competitors didn't follow their lead.

Speaking to Wired, John Newton, associate director of the labelling and certification program at the Carbon Trust, which worked on Tesco’s labelling project said, “The complexity was immense. They had to go to every single, say, dairy farm and ask for all the data. It was a huge task doing the simplest footprint.”

To give a small idea of the intricacy of the task at hand, calculating carbon footprints for even something like a tomato would be a complex task. hat fertiliser, if any, was used? How was it transported and packaged? Was the land deforested to make room for farmland? What about water use? These factors alone mean a single ingredient’s environmental impact can vary wildly.

The complexity has forced many brands to think about certification schemes, such as the Rainforest Alliance, rather than employ their own carbon labelling, however the availability of data could mean that it is getting easier for brands to report the carbon footprint across their supply chain. “The availability of data is so different from what it was 12 years ago,” says Newton. “Now, so many companies across the supply chain are reporting their own CO2 emissions. There’s much better secondary data and generic data. We know things like what the footprint of different plastic is. We know shipping data, so all we need to know is where it’s coming from. The whole process is a lot simpler now.”

Euan Murray, CEO of the Sustainability Consortium, which advises large corporations on how to reduce their carbon footprint, told Wired, “Honestly? It’s hard. If we do the simple thing, then there’s a risk of greenwashing, and a real risk that we set things back. The sweet spot we’re trying to find is translating the science into something that’s easy for consumers to digest – and then do the right thing.”

“I do think that I think the window of opportunity is as wide open as it's ever been,” says Murray.

To find out how your business can improve its sustainable credentials, come see Euan Murray and many more at Smart Food Matters in April.