Easy-to-understand labelling can drive consumer demand for sustainable products but how easy is it to develop labels that accurately measure a foodstuff's impact on the environment?

Greening supply chains – Part III

Communicating with consumers

One need only look at the success of the Fairtrade movement to see how important consumer opinion can be in leading the demand for sustainably sourced products. As the food industry strives with the challenge of making entire mainstream supply chains more sustainable, there are a number of consumer-facing issues to be addressed.

Companies say consumers are prompting them to do more to make their supply chains sustainable. By the same token, therefore, claiming green credentials can help sell a product. The issue of misleading claims and concerns over the lack of consistency in evaluating the environmental criteria of products pervade the entire debate.

The issue of front-of-pack nutritional labelling has proved highly contentious in recent years but in reality the challenge of measuring a food product's nutritional criteria and referencing that in some form on the pack is straightforward in comparison with measuring a product's precise environmental impact and communicating that in a meaningful way to consumers. 

Green claims and eco labelling

Now is an interesting time to be considering eco labelling for food. The Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in the UK has commissioned a study into 'Effective approaches to environmental labelling of food products'. The research is being conducted by the University of Hertfordshire, the Food Ethics Council and the Policy Studies Institute.

The first stage of the research reviewed eco labelling currently in use on food products in the UK and Europe. The second stage reviewed evidence concerning the scientific soundness of different approaches to environmental labelling, focusing on ten impact areas: air quality; soil quality; water quality; climate change; biodiversity and habitats; landscape and heritage; noise, dust and odours; waste generation; resource depletion (including land and water use); and stratospheric ozone depletion. 

The third stage of the study considered the potential impacts on industry and consumers of different labelling options, and the likely implications for their behaviour, while the fourth stage brings all the research together into a framework for practical and effective labelling for food products, conclusions and recommendations.

The overall conclusions are yet to be published but the interim findings of the research were discussed at a recent Business Forum hosted by the Food Ethics Council. 

According to the research, the Food Ethics Council reports in its summary of the Business Forum, there is a large of amount of activity relating to environmental labelling in the UK and internationally, but comparatively little is applied to food products. Food labels measuring environmental impacts tend to focus on one element, such as carbon. Eco labels for food products are often not based on measuring environmental impacts at all, but certify that specific practices have been adopted in production or along the supply chain. 

The researchers also found that for many impact areas, challenges remain in setting uniform standards. Regarding how consumers respond to eco labelling, the research made an interesting finding. While one might assume that labelling is about driving changes in consumer behaviour which in turn influences industry action, the evidence suggests that industry changes in order to gain the label. This finding would seem to underline how significant the development of eco labelling could be to the overall challenge of making food supply chains more sustainable. However, when the full report is published it is likely to reveal just how difficult it may be to develop a comprehensive environmental labelling scheme for food.

The Defra-sponsored study is not the only research being conducted into the feasibility of eco labelling for food. The EU ‘flower’ Ecolabel is now a well established scheme in the EU but food has so far not been included in the programme. However, the European Commission is currently undertaking a feasibility study into the extension of the scheme to food products.

Third-party certification schemes

The success of the Fairtrade movement has been founded on scrupulous certification. While the food industry is a long way from developing a universal eco labelling system, third party certification does offer the potential to differentiate sustainably sourced products in the marketplace. 

As with multi-stakeholder supply chain initiatives, certification schemes administered by independent non-profit organisations are likely to have the most credibility. These tend to be focused on specific categories. Once consumer awareness of a certification programme reaches a critical mass a certification logo can function as a consumer-facing kite mark, in much the same way as the Fairtrade mark does. 

Examples include the RSPCA's Freedom Food animal welfare assurance scheme which covers meat, eggs and poultry in the UK, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) sustainably sourced fish certification scheme and the Rainforest Alliance certification mark which covers agriculture and forestry.

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is an international non-profit organisation with a multi-stakeholder governance structure comprising academics and representatives from the NGO and commercial sectors. The MSC states that it works in partnership with a number of organisations, businesses and funders around the world but remains "fully independent of all". It adds: "Stakeholders from a range of backgrounds contribute to the MSC programme ensuring balance and preventing the dominance of single interests."

Launched in 1999, the MSC currently covers around 10% of the world's edible wild caught fish, including 40% of the global prime whitefish catch, which includes cod, Alaska pollock, hake, haddock, hoki and saithe.

A study by WWF, published in January, surveyed seven different seafood certification schemes and gave the MSC's programme the highest rating with over 95% compliance with the assessment criteria. The study found significant differences in transparency, information availability, structure and accuracy of claims made by each scheme. With the exception of the MSC programme, all had "substantial shortcomings" in transparency and information provision.

The RSPCA's Freedom Food farm assurance and food labelling scheme was launched in 1994 and remains the only UK farm assurance scheme dedicated to farm animal welfare. According to the RSPCA, the scheme regulates the entire supply chain and offers a robust traceability system. 

Sainsbury's is the UK's largest retailer of Freedom Food products. The other 13 retailers listed on the RSPCA website as stockists of Freedom Food products not only include the major supermarket chains such as Tesco, Asda, Morrisons and Waitrose but cut-price retailers such as Makro, Iceland Foods and CostCo and symbol groups including Spar and Nisa Today.

For parts I, II and IV of this just-food management briefing, click here.