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July 2, 2021updated 01 Feb 2022 11:29am

Food eco-labels are imperfect – but consumers want them

Shoppers are looking for labels showing a food product’s green credentials – and two new systems being road-tested in Europe also demonstrate industry interest despite their imperfections.

By David Burrows

Information on sustainability should be compulsory on food labels. So said 88% of Europeans in a Eurobarometer survey of over 27,000 people in 27 countries published in December. That’s unlikely.

However, six months on and two food eco-labels have been launched that promise to assess products and score them using a traffic-light-style label.

“I think a lot of people are hoping that at some point the European Commission will evolve towards one methodology, one label,” but “all of this takes time and consumers cannot wait anymore”, says Veerle Poppe, sustainability strategist at Belgium-based retailer Colruyt. “They’re asking for this today.”

Colruyt is among the companies using Eco-score, which grades products from A to E based on a score out of 100. The system starts with a life cycle assessment (LCA) of environmental impacts (which represents the bulk of the score) but is then followed by a ‘bonus-malus’ approach: products gain or lose points based on other criteria, spanning everything from deforestation and provenance to animal welfare standards and fair pay. The result is a “solid and feasible” score, says Shafik Asal, founder of the Eco2 Initiative that has developed the label.

Take Colruyt’s semi-skimmed Boni Bio milk, which received a score of 54/100 for its LCA. The fact it is organic and 100% Belgian added points, but there was a penalty for the packaging. This left an overall score of 78, or a B-grade, which customers can see through an app.

This scope and simplicity (as well as the fact this is a ‘social project’) has enticed other supermarkets to try it out. Lidl is running trials with the label in Germany and has just started more in the Netherlands. Last month, French retailer Carrefour announced the score is being placed alongside 25,000 products on its website. Ham scores an E, while wholemeal bread manages an A. The fact discounters are in the race is significant, according to Cyrille Filott, global strategist for consumer foods at Rabobank. “I think this is massive,” he said in a recent podcast on the topic.

But Eco-score isn’t the only scheme about. Last month, a clutch of food manufacturers and retailers signed up for a new project, Foundation Earth, which also scores products on their environmental impact. The aim is similar – to give shoppers credible information so they can make informed decisions – and so too is the label: like Eco-score (which is aligned with Nutri-score), Foundation Earth takes its design cues from the traffic light labels used for nutrition, though the scale runs from A+ to G. However, the marking system is quite different.

For a start, Foundation Earth’s score is limited to environmental impacts. An initial pilot in the autumn will use an approach developed by Mondra, a consultancy, to score 100 products from companies including Marks and Spencer, Finnebrogue Artisan for its Naked bacon, Costa Coffee and Veetee Rice.

Each product’s impacts will be assed across carbon (49% weighted), water usage (17%), water pollution (17%) and biodiversity loss (17%). The LCA covers farming, processing, packaging and transport, but not retail or ‘end-of-life’, for example where the packaging ends up (prompting some LCA experts to question if it really is a “complete” LCA).

Jago Pearson, chief strategy officer at Finnebrogue, has been heavily involved in the formation of Foundation Earth (an initiative that was the brainchild of the company’s founder Denis Lynn, who died in a quadbike accident last month). The new label is about creating change, he explains. “We’re not going to do that by saying ‘don’t eat this, eat that’, or engaging in an increasingly polarised debate between different interest groups. We’re going to do it by saying that whatever product it is – meat, plant, milk, wine, whatever it might be – how can we make it better?”

Foundation Earth admits its system isn’t perfect. The pilot aims to see how the concept plays with consumers while a nine-month research and development programme, funded by Nestlé and overseen by scientific and industry experts, comes up with a better system. The plan is to combine Mondra’s approach with a move funded by the EIT and involving Belgium’s Leuven University and Spanish research agency AZTI. The end result will allow “two products of the same type to be compared on their individual merits via a complete product life cycle analysis, as opposed to simply using secondary data to estimate the environmental impact of an entire product group”, Foundation Earth claims.

That is a subtle dig at Eco-score, which relies on a database of French products for its LCAs. An opinion piece in Le Figaro penned by consumer group representatives noted the challenges of using generic data: two yogurts may well get the same score “regardless of the efforts made individually by a particular manufacturer to reduce its climate footprint, promote biodiversity and progress more generally towards more sustainable products”.

Using French data to score Belgian or Dutch products raises concerns. However, Asal argues scoring every individual product just isn’t possible – practically or commercially. “We will be all dead before [completing all those] LCAs,” he says. “We have an urgent matter to shift our consumption to more sustainable habits.”

Food footprinting experts will continue to debate the relative merits of the two approaches. Those involved in both schemes just want to crack on (Foundation Earth has plans to automate its system within a year or two, while Eco-score is already on 448,070 products). Just Food understands discussions on ways they could work together may soon take place.

The fact both have created labels that measure more than carbon – which a decade ago was taking off but quickly hit the rails for being too expensive and time-consuming – is also significant. “Some countries and some FMCGs are thinking of climate change labels, carbon emission labels [but] for us […] this is too limited,” says Colruyt’s Poppe. Danone, which isn’t involved in the schemes, says environmental labelling schemes must be “holistic”, incorporating “a range of relevant indicators that go beyond carbon”.

Indeed, plant-based businesses like Oatly and Quorn Foods have been applying carbon footprints to their products, safe in the knowledge that the result is lower than that for dairy or meat. There is a belief expanding the scope levels the playing field – and could even throw up a few surprising grades.

Pendragon Stuart, associate director at insights consultancy Globescan, says in an ideal world the labelling scheme would be the most accurate version, which takes everything into account and allows for differences in performances between those different yogurts, for instance. That probably isn’t realistic, though. “What I think we need is one imperfect, but widely-used system, rather than multiple systems that are perfect in their own way, but incomparable,” he says. Only that way will we get what he calls the “gut feel indications to help steer behaviour”.

But will these labels change behaviour? The short answer is: we don’t know (the pilots will help). What we do know is consumers are incredibly keen to make changes but struggle to do so. Research by UK supermarket Asda in 2020 showed 64% of shoppers are “willing to change the way I shop to be more environmentally friendly”. However, only 16% are making observable changes to what they buy, according to Susan Thomas, the supermarket’s senior director, sustainable commercial activities.

Colruyt has just launched an advertising campaign to help inform shoppers about the scores – “We’ve had calls from Vietnam [about our work],” says Poppe. There is a lot of communication to do, including what the label covers, how it’s done and why it matters. Grabbing attention won’t be easy. Consumers weigh up taste, price and health in a matter of seconds, so chuck a sustainability message into the mix and it needs to be clear and concise.

The 2020 Globescan healthy and sustainable living report – based on online surveying of 27,000 people in 27 countries – showed a clear correlation between ‘easy to do’ and ‘interested in’ when it came to sustainable lifestyle choices, including diet. Understanding which products are better and what actions they can take is something many consumers want (30% and 24% respectively). However, far more desirable is having problems fixed for them (50%), so, for example, making more sustainable and affordable products.

Arguably the real power of these labels lies not in shifting consumer behaviour but changing industry. Mandatory energy labels on household appliances have seen European manufacturers invest heavily to achieve the greenest grades, so these new schemes are hoping the same premise can work for food. Nutrition labels, which will soon become mandatory in the EU, are already driving reformulation.

“By virtue of simply having to report that information, companies change their behaviour,” explains Professor Nicole Darnall, an expert in sustainable consumption and purchasing at Arizona State University. “So whether consumers pay attention to the information or not, companies will change their behaviour.”

This will place severe pressure on food manufacturers – both private label and branded. Currently, it’s retailers leading the charge on these schemes. For them, “it’s great”, explained Marjolein Hanssen, consumer foods analyst at Rabobank, during that recent podcast. “They’re not the ones making the food, or having to provide all that data and getting it onto the pack – that’s on the food producer.”

Research and development teams will want to clear their diaries (around 4% of Eco-score products are currently rated A). One issue is that environmental data, unlike nutritional information, is largely invisible. “With Eco-score, you don’t really have an idea how your competitors are doing,” says Hanssen at Rabobank. She is excited to see if there are big differences between similar products and how manufacturers go about changing their scores. “It will definitely encourage them to dive deeper into their supply chain and try to get those bonus points by working with their suppliers,” she says.

The whole thing will make some marketing teams shudder. There is a nervousness when you start looking at this kind of data, says Jeff Doyle, head of food business at Compassion in World Farming in the US, which has created a web tool, Evaluate Your Plate, that allows people to compare the impacts of the food they eat. “People are figuring out how to communicate about the environment,” he adds.

Some food brands still argue these labels are just one (complicated, expensive and, perhaps, ineffective) marketing lever they can pull to encourage more sustainable behaviour. Achieving a single, unifying labelling system for consumers across such broad sustainability themes is “a complex challenge”, notes Ignacio Gavilan, sustainability director at industry association The Consumer Goods Forum.

But these two new labels are proving what’s already possible. Sure, they are imperfect but the fact Eco-score is being quickly rolled out across Europe and Foundation Earth is bringing together the likes of Sainsbury’s, Tyson, Nestlé and Eroski, suggest there is now an appetite for these labels.

Some have changed their tune completely. “We don’t believe on-pack labelling to be the best option for communicating complex issues and data on environmental impacts,” Nestlé told Just-Food in 2018. Three years on and it’s a driving force behind the creation of Foundation Earth’s labelling scheme and hoping to run a pilot “as soon as possible”.

In Europe, there will be a voluntary eco label come 2024, which is fuelling interest in these schemes as they vie to be the chosen one. A mandatory system is years off. But more scores will arrive online and in stores in the coming months. Some of them will be “ugly” admit those involved, but given consumer demand for this kind of information, any score may be better than no score.

GlobalData Analysis: Carbon Emissions in FMCG – Thematic Research

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