Carbon footprint labelling: the new standard for the food industry?

Carbon footprint labelling: the new standard for the food industry?

Image: Raquel Martínez

The realization that food production accounts for 20 to 25% of global greenhouse gas emissions is increasing consumers’ awareness about their diet’s environmental impact. A growing number of companies addressing these considerations with transparent footprint labelling may slowly be setting the standard for the industry.

A well-known company that is challenging the status quo is Oatly. As part of their radical transparency approach, the Swedish oat milk producer discloses the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent that is emitted as a result of the production of its popular drinks. A full-fat oat drink? 0.31 kg CO2e per kg. The barista edition? That’s 0.42 kg of CO2 equivalent emitted into the atmosphere.

Beside the carbon footprint, Oatly lists all the suppliers and origins of its products’ ingredients. Consumers can even find out who supplied the added potassium iodide and where it was produced, a feature which is very uncommon in the food industry.

The company partners with data provider CarbonCloud to calculate the greenhouse gas emissions that the manufacturing of its products causes. Based in Sweden, the data company’s mission is to “support the world in a transition to climate-smart eating habits”, and an increasing number of food companies, such as Naturli and Quorn, are joining in this quest.

“We provide the data, packages, transports and ingredients, whereas CarbonCloud enters the data involving cultivation of ingredients,” says Carina Tollmar, Sustainability Director at Oatly. “We show the climate footprints of our products to raise awareness among consumers. Our hope is to help create a demand for this type of information for food in general. We want consumers to easily find and recognize climate friendly food.”

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CarbonCloud says footprint labelling increases customer loyalty and gives brands a competitive marketing advantage. Perhaps most importantly, the data gives companies an insight into which parts of the production chain they can best address to reduce their products’ climate footprints. And, according to their website, they can collect the data almost twice as fast and half as cheap compared to conventional life cycle assessment approaches.

For Oatly, showing customers the origins and impacts of its products is only the first step. “We are not a perfect company, not even close, but our intentions are true,” the company states. “We strive to produce the cleanest, most responsible products on the market and are continually looking for better ways to make our products even better.”

Indeed, the company is open for constructive criticism. After one social media user pointed out Oatly’s packaging to be “anything but circular”, and recommended the company should look into a more sustainable approach, Oatly responded enthusiastically, asking him to share any ideas he has to improve the product’s packaging.

Carbon footprint disclosure is already extending beyond consumer goods and into the hospitality industry. CarbonCloud’s restaurant menu planning tool CarbonAte provides chefs with real-time feedback on each ingredient’s carbon footprint, making it easier than ever to substitute high-impact ingredients with low-impact alternatives. Earlier this year, the company announced it is working with Fazer Food Services to label lunch menus in the Swedish Parliament restaurant.

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These developments may just be the start of a more transparent food system that gives consumers the information required to make environmentally sound decisions. Mandatory nutrition labels have only been around since the second half of the twentieth century, while today it is impossible to imagine their absence on nearly all processed foods. The same destiny might just be in store for environmental impact labels.

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