It’s almost a decade since the familiar ‘traffic light’ labeling system appeared on supermarket items, listing key data on calories, sugar, salt and fat, writes Chris Fiander, marketing director at Westpak Group. In this statement, he zooms in on the role of food packaging.
“A similar emphasis is placed on environmental sustainability data for food in the retail industry. This recent development appears to be based on real consumer demand. In 2020, The Carbon Trust reported that as many as two thirds of consumers ‘CO2 labelling’ on products is a good idea.Concepts such as “Product Carbon Footprint” (“PCF”), for example, have become increasingly established among both retailers and consumers as a means of highlighting a product’s “total CO2 emissions over its life cycle”. .
“However, this definition is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the range of food sustainability criteria that can be incorporated into packaging. The food industry is currently inundated with numerous frameworks and criteria for assessing a product’s environmental impact and many of these frameworks vary widely in their complexity and visual representation.
Embrace the complexity
“A number of systems are already in place which provide comprehensive insight into the environmental impacts of food. The website pre-sustainability.com(3) provides a good overview of these systems. It emphasizes that current methods for assessing the CO2 footprint of products fall into two categories, the first being those that focus on the “single issue methodology” (which relates exclusively to emissions related to climate change) (This includes methods such as ISO 14067, PAS 2050 and the GHG Protocol product standard).
“The second set of methods covers a wider range of environmental impact criteria beyond climate change. (This includes Product Environmental Footprint (PEF), BP X30-323-0 and EN 15804). While these systems play a central role in making the distinction between purely emission-based environmental impacts and environmental damage more broadly, the potential for large-scale product labeling is severely limited by the inherent complexity of such systems.”
“However, alternative systems have been devised where labeling and packaging are one of the main focuses. These very simplified systems seem to match the simplicity of the ‘traffic light’ system with a focus on important environmental and sustainability data. Foundation Earth”( 4 ), for example, provides a clearly presented “Eco Impact” rating that can be printed on food packaging. There are eight classes here, from ‘A+’ being the most durable to ‘G’ where the colors change from green to red depending on the score achieved. Other parties, such as ‘My emissions'(5), offer a further simplified visualization with only five classes ranging from ‘A’ to ‘E’.
“These parties offer a clear advantage as the simplicity of their graphics and rating systems can be easily integrated into food packaging design, and they also easily attract consumer attention because there are more differentiated systems and viewpoints.
“Do the conventions from one framework flow seamlessly into another? One platform may have the highest rating ‘A+’ while another may have the highest rating ‘A’. In addition, by presenting complex environmental assessment tools in simple graphic designs, the complexity of environmental assessment have not been directly addressed, but rather have been replaced by ambiguity or lack of definition.For example, is “environmental impact” the same as “carbon impact” for the average consumer?
“And there can be even more fundamental confusion for consumers, such as whether the labeling applies to the food itself, the packaging, or both. Some suppliers appear to be providing more clarity on their websites and other platforms, but all of this is far too complex to quickly consumer decision-making in retail, and there may also be ambiguity or even disagreement between rating frameworks and consumers about the thresholds used to determine which data can be assigned which sustainability rating.”
“For example, how many grams of carbon dioxide qualify for a high or low sustainability rating? The ‘My Emissions’ platform states regarding their criteria: “The limits are based on a statistical analysis of all over 3,000 foods in the My Emissions database. They have been audited by W2R Solutions’ external consultants. We believe that thresholds for a carbon label should be set by government (as are nutritional thresholds) and we are actively discussing this with regulators(6).” (“Foundation Earth” also provides more details about its methodology online).”
“However, there are a number of existing frameworks that try to find a balance between simplified graphical representation of data and a slightly more comprehensive explanation. The Carbon Trust(8), for example, offers a number of labeling certifications that explicitly state whether they cover the packaging, the product as a whole, reduced CO2 consumption, carbon neutrality, etc. Another example, “Eaternity”(9), divides its results into four main criteria – “Climate” (grams of CO2), “Water” (liters), “Animal welfare” and “Rainforest “. Each of these categories is rated between one and three stars (three being the highest rating).”
“It is clear that the current conventions around sustainability labeling of food are broad and varied. It will be even more interesting if such labeling becomes mandatory for retailers through state legislation. In that case, the need for harmonization of the various methods could quickly become current.”
“Another important development will be how this trend spills over from the food industry into the foodservice and takeaway market. Eaternity and ‘My Emissions’ are currently active in the foodservice industry, but it will be interesting to see how such approaches develop in this market be adopted as this development progresses. Finally, such eco-labeling can have important implications for food packaging, both in terms of design and materials used. When packaging is considered in such environmental product assessments, it will not be enough that a packaging design is on the label or is supposed to be environmentally friendly, instead its sustainability must be shown in quantifiable terms as part of the overall product.”
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