The scale and urgency of the current climate crisis can feel, at times, both completely and utterly overwhelming and extremely frightening. And although our individual, day-to-day choices are important when it comes to tackling the ongoing climate breakdown, experts frequently say that if we’re going to create a truly sustainable future, change is largely in the hands of politicians, policymakers and big businesses.
This is why Oatly, the Swedish oat drink giant, has launched a new campaign urging all food and drink companies in the UK to reveal the climate footprint of their products.
The campaign comes after a recent study indicated strong public support for carbon labelling on food and drink items.
According to the research, 62% of UK consumers are in favour of a policy that introduces carbon labelling on food and drink products, with 55% believing that companies should be obligated to publish this information as a legal requirement.
Interestingly, 59% of consumers said they would reduce or completely stop consuming high carbon footprint food and drink products if they had accurate emissions data.
The research also showed that young people, aged 18 to 34, are more interested in knowing the carbon footprint of their food and drink, more supportive of carbon labelling (77% of people aged 18-34 say they would be in favour of a policy to introduce carbon labelling on food and drink) and more likely to change their consumption habits based on the disclosed information.
In fact, the 18-34-year-olds say they would find carbon footprint information more useful than recycling information.
‘Many people (especially the current generation) are becoming wise and conscious of the impact excessive fuel consumption is having on the planet and seeking out ways in which it can be reduced. From the reduction of single-use plastics, the purchase of wonky fruit and veg, to recycling and reusing packaging for other purposes,’ says Chris Oatway, food marketer from Lancashire.
‘Adding carbon footprint and mileage to packaging could be useful but may, in a way, name and shame brands for their lack of action around climate change. After all, we count calories, why not count the distance they have come?’
In order to emphasise why climate labelling should be mandatory, Oatly has published a Grey Paper, titled ‘Climate Labelling: Why Not?’
In the paper, Oatly stresses that emissions from the food system, which currently contribute to 35% of the UK's total greenhouse gas emissions, must decrease. In fact, the UK Government’s Climate Change Committee has made the explicit recommendation that we must reduce our dairy intake by 20% by 2030.
Oatly also points out that consumers already receive similar information in other sectors. For example, EPC certificates when purchasing a house, emissions data when buying a car, and energy rating data when buying appliances like TVs or fridges. So the same principle should apply to food and drink products.
‘The food and drink we consume is responsible for a third of total UK emissions,’ says Bryan Carroll, UK General Manager at Oatly.
‘Scientists, including the UK Government's own Climate Change Committee, are clear that those emissions must urgently come down, and that consumer behaviour change is a necessary part of that. Our view is that it's unreasonable to expect this to happen when consumers are not being given the information they need to make informed choices. Given the urgency of our climate challenge, we believe it should be as easy for shoppers to find the climate impact of what they're buying as it is to find its price tag.’
To further highlight the campaign, Oatly has publicly challenged the dairy industry to disclose its own climate footprint data – so that shoppers can make an accurate comparison. Oatly has paid for prominent advertising space and offered it to ‘Big Dairy’ for free, if they publish the full climate footprint and impact of their products.
This call for climate labelling comes as the UK Government establishes the Food Data Transparency Partnership, which aims to explore possible climate labelling policies for food and drink.
‘We’ve published a ‘grey paper’ because climate labelling isn’t a black-and-white issue where certain foods are good and others are not,’ adds Carroll.
‘This is about giving consumers the freedom to make informed choices about what they’re buying and how it impacts the planet – from grower to grocer. We’re inviting those across the full spectrum of the food industry to come together and work out what an effective climate labelling system should look like. One that doesn’t cost the earth but helps preserve the Earth. Together we can put collective pressure on the UK Government to make this happen and not get watered down like some other environmental policies have, sadly, been lately.’
Clearly, it has never been more important for consumers to think about their carbon footprint and the impact their diet and weekly food shop choices are having on the planet.
‘While we are often told how every item we pick up from the supermarket shelf can have a lasting impact, many of us will have little idea what that impact actually is,’ says Jade Collins, technical controller at food labelling consultancy Ashbury. ‘With so much information available, it can be difficult for consumers to see what is actually being done by manufacturers and retailers to reduce emissions.’
Mark Shayler, sustainability strategist and author of You Can’t Make Money From A Dead Planet: The Sustainable Method for Driving Profits agrees; ‘Any information that helps people make better environmental decisions and helps companies measure, and ultimately reduce their impact is to be welcomed.’
And even though carbon isn’t a perfect measure of environmental impact ‘it is the best one that we have,’ Shayler points out.
‘It may also uncover a few surprises,’ he says. ‘For example, imported tomatoes can often have a lower carbon impact than those grown in heated greenhouses here. It will also shine a light on production methods with grass-fed beef having a lower impact than beef fed on soya beans or from areas that have been cleared of forest. Information is power and this adds sharper focus to the food supply chain and will hopefully result in lower impact food.’
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