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Why are carbon footprint labels so rare?

    By now you’ll be used to seeing certain bits of information on products. The best example is food, where you almost always find some form of nutritional information on all food packaging. However, it’s currently very rare to find carbon footprint labels for food and other products.

    There are currently only a handful of companies that display environmental information on their products. For food, the two best-known examples are Oatly and Quorn, which both display the carbon footprint on the packaging for most of their products. Similarly, US brand Allbirds display the environmental impact of their sustainable trainers.

    These companies buck the trend, rather than represent the norm. We therefore asked ourselves why more products don’t have carbon or eco-labels. Here’s what we found.

    What are carbon footprint labels?

    The term ‘carbon footprint label’ can be confusing. It can mean different things, ranging from a badge or accreditation to simply displaying the quantified impact of the product. Broadly, though, it is a way to measure and communicate the environmental impact of a product.

    The key benefit of eco labels is it clearly shows the environmental impact of a product. Quorn, for example, highlights that about one-quarter of global greenhouse gasses come from food. They then use the carbon label to show the environmental benefits of their products compared to meat alternatives. In their words:

    What comes to mind when you think of the worst carbon emitters? Cars? Airlines? Power plants? Did you know global annual carbon emissions from livestock can be considerable? That’s why at Quorn we have published the carbon lifecycle of our leading products on this page.

    So why are eco-labels for food and other products so rare? From our research, here are there three main reasons that we found.

    Reason 1: carbon labels are not required by law

    The simplest explanation is that no laws require companies to display environmental information on their packaging. If you do see this information, that means the brand has decided to display one themselves, rather than being forced to do so by law.

    The opposite is true for nutritional information. In most countries, including the UK and EU, the law requires nutritional information to be displayed on food packaging, hence this is something you will always find.

    There is a strong argument to say that eco- or carbon labels should be made a legal requirement. Oatly, for example, explain their decision to display the carbon footprint of their products through their belief “that consumer empowerment should be a law, if not a human right”.

    A cynical view might therefore be that, for whatever reason, regulators don’t want to impose on companies an obligation to display sustainability information. Why, for example, is environmental information treated differently to nutrition? Whilst this may (or may not) be true, there are nevertheless some other reasons that may explain why eco-labels for food and other products are not legally required and remain so rare.

    Oatly packaging with carbon footprint food eco-label

    Oatly display an eco-label with the ‘climate footprint’ of their products

    Reason 2: eco labels are expensive

    In order to properly assess the impact of a product, you need to complete a full life cycle assessment. This process takes into account all the direct and indirect processes required to make a product. For instance, taking a food product you would need to consider the climate impacts from farming (eg animal food, fertilisers, water, energy), processing, packag

    ing, transport, storage and retail, and much more. To make things more complicated, often this information comes from multiple different sources throughout the supply chain, making it hard to even get all the information in the first place.

    Comparing this with nutritional information for food shows why the latter is so much easier to obtain. For nutritional information, all that’s needed is to test the finished product at a lab. It does not matter how the food was made or got there – all that matters is the finished food. As I’m sure you can see, this makes the whole process much simpler and, ultimately, cheaper to carry out.

    Life cycle assessments are so expensive that Tesco dropped their eco-labeling scheme entirely. In 2007, Tesco launched a pioneering initiative to carbon label all their products. However, by 2012 Tesco had to scrap the plan, saying that several months to research and generate each sustainability label was too long and it had become too expensive. Importantly, they cited that not enough brands had also started eco-labeling. Had this happened, the scheme would have had a ‘critical mass’ and, according to Tesco, made the project viable.

    To put it simply, life cycle assessments are complicated, making them time-consuming and expensive.

    Quorn carbon footprint label

    Quorn display the carbon footprint of their products in an eco-label on the back of their packaging

    Reason 3: no consensus on a single carbon footprint label

    Another issue is the lack of consensus on what an eco-label for food or other products should include or look like. One option would be a form of ‘accreditation’, which is based on the product satisfying certain criteria. However, this would then require some consensus on what criteria to consider, which currently doesn’t exist. To highlight the scale of the problem, Ecolabel Index currently recognises 456 different eco-labels all offering a different form of accreditation!

    Alternatively, we could simply display the quantified impact of the product, or combine multiple impacts into a ‘sustainability score’. This option is very similar to nutritional information and might be easier for consumers to understand. However, again both require those complicated and expensive assessments and there is still a question mark over what factors to assess and display.

    With so many different labels, it’s hard for consumers and companies alike to decide which label to trust. Until a uniform style and factors are agreed upon, it’s difficult to see eco-labels for food or other products becoming mainstream.

    It’s not all doom and gloom

    Whilst there are many reasons why carbon labels are rare, there are some positive signs that things are changing.

    As more data becomes available and supply chains are made more transparent, it is becoming quicker and easier to calculate carbon footprint values. This reduces possibly the biggest barrier to carbon labeling until now: the cost.

    A second important factor is a growing demand for environmental data. Influencers and pressure groups like Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion are highlighting the importance of the climate emergency. Their message is we need to act now to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. Importantly, consumers have responded by thinking about sustainability when making key choices. For example, the majority of consumers are now willing to boycott a brand based on its sustainability.

    As a consequence of this demand, companies are increasingly completing their own carbon labeling. Already, Allbirds, Oatly, and Quorn display the carbon footprint of their main products. More recently, Unilever, one of the largest consumer goods companies in the world, announced their commitment to displaying the carbon footprint on all of their 70,000+ products. This includes brands like Ben & Jerry’s, Colmans, Dove, Sure, and Persil – so if this happens it will be a big deal!

    Compared with 2007, the cost of a life cycle assessment is much less and there is a growing demand for sustainability information. Potentially, therefore, there is now the ‘critical mass’ required for the widespread adoption of eco-labels.

    Introducing My Emissions’ carbon footprint label for food

    My Emissions enables brands to easily calculate the carbon footprint of their food. This allows them to display the environmental impact of their food using our carbon labels, like the one we offer to food producers above.

    Click here for more information about the My Emissions food carbon label.