Example of food labels showing environmental impacts. Illustration: Joseph Poore Tweet
Concerns over the environmental impact of food and drink products increase as awareness for the issue grows. Shoppers are looking at the overuse of plastic packaging and the carbon footprint of what they consume and are beginning to question just how sustainable what they buy really is.
In 1992 an EU directive was put in place meaning all electric appliances had to be labelled with their energy efficiency. Considering the food system drives 80% of our nitrogen and phosphorus pollution, threatens 10,000 species with extinction and emits 30% of greenhouse gases, so why have the food manufacturers only ever had voluntary ecolabels?
Over the past three decades, public and private initiatives began communicating sustainable and ethical related information about food to consumers by introducing labels and logos in-store and on-pack. The more prominent ones being the Fair Trade logo, the Rainforest Alliance logo, various carbon index schemes and animal welfare-related logos. According to cataloguer ecolabelindex.com, approximately 432 labelling schemes are available in 246 countries, of which 147 include standards for food/beverage.
Recently mandatory environmental impact labels have been proposed to change how we produce and help consumers make more informed buying decisions. Firstly this would force producers to measure their impacts in a uniform way and be accountable for the results, this would not be expensive as there are already free digital tools to monitor environmental impacts. Secondly, mandatory labels support sustainable consumption, through highlighting both high- and low-impact producers, in the same way, across multiple products and shoppers are more likely to stop buying brands they perceive as unethical than to start buying those they perceive to be ethical. And thirdly theses labels would create information about the food system which could underpin better policy, particularly taxes or subsidies linked to actual environmental harm.
Simply by implementing mandatory environmental labelling sustainable companies would be rewarded, it would enable sustainable eating and support better policymaking. Making it a straightforward yet powerful change which could be instrumental in halting and reversing the escalating harmful effects of the food system on our environment.
Read more about the proposed labelling: www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/oct/10/we-label-fridges-to-show-their-environmental-impact-why-not-food
Read the Sustainability labels on food products research report: www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306919213001796