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Carbon food labelling: When will we have the information to understand the carbon footprint of our shopping basket?

Improved sustainability labelling would support consumer choice

You are not alone if you don’t know much about the sustainability of your pizza, pint of milk or shepherd’s pie. Or the difference between the tomatoes grown in a heated greenhouse in the UK or imported from Spain. According to our research, when asked what makes a product sustainable, the majority of consumers indicated concern as to whether a product was biodegradable or made from recycled material, was responsibly sourced, had minimal packaging, was carbon neutral and, supported biodiversity. Whilst labelling on packaging is becoming clearer, it is more difficult to understand the environmental footprint of the product inside. Could it be that consumers need clearer and standardised labelling regarding the environmental impact of the products they buy?

Surprisingly, only one in four consumers consider a product being labelled as ‘responsibly sourced’ as a sign that it is sustainable, and only one in five rate labelling as very important when considering a purchase. This reflects a lack of consistent labelling which confuses consumers.[1]

Given our climate crisis, it is important that the food and drink sector transitions rapidly to low carbon pathways, and consumer choice is a critical aspect of that transition. With over a third of greenhouse gas emissions coming from our food system[2], our food choices can have a significant impact on carbon emissions. There is currently work underway in the UK and across the EU to explore approaches to carbon labelling of food products. However, measuring the carbon footprint of food products is complex, and subsequently so is the choice of how food should be labelled to make the information useful to consumers wanting to reduce the carbon impact of the food they buy. The mission for food labelling is very much in the sights of many major food producers and retailers across Europe – but how close are we to achieving the ambition to provide this information to consumers?

The current state of environmental labelling on food

There are two distinct approaches to carbon labelling of food being developed and tested – one based on a standard score for a particular food type, and the other based on product specific food footprints. For the first approach, for example, we would have a generic footprint for chicken which may be helpful if a consumer is wanting to choose between different protein types. In the second approach, chicken with different carbon footprints, for example because they have been reared using different feed types, would allow consumers to make choices when purchasing chicken. The former approach makes it much harder for interventions in specific supply chains to be highlighted to consumers, but the latter approach is burdened with measurement and calculation challenges. The first approach has been spearheaded by Eco-Score in France and is favoured by a number of European based companies. It is based on extensive food lifecycle assessment calculations for 2,500 food product categories, undertaken through the Agribalyse programme of the French Agency for Ecological Transition, ADEME. In addition to the lifecycle assessment of food products, the scoring methodology also includes additional criteria such as whether the packaging is recyclable or the whether the farming process is organic. Following the assessment, products receive an Eco-score, rating products from A which have the lowest environmental impact to those with the highest scoring an E. The system has been adopted by a number of retailers such as Carrefour in France[3] and Colruyt in Belgium[4]. This system has advantages – it is quick for companies to apply, has an open and standardised methodology and allows consumers to easily see where each product sits against a range of products. The score represents combined environmental impacts such as emissions, water use, air pollution and land use change. While this is a simple system for consumers to understand, aggregation into a single score means the detail of specific impact areas is lost, for example the consumer cannot know if the product has a low climate impact but high water scarcity impact. The Agribalyse database covers a substantial number of primary products, but does not include composite products where processes and ingredients will vary considerably. With the objective of creating a single score for a food type, assumptions are inevitably made regarding agricultural and processing methods to produce a standard score.

The second approach, currently favoured by UK food producers and retailers, requires individual products to have a life cycle assessment (the calculation methodology used to calculate product carbon footprints) that takes into account the specific agricultural, rearing and processing impacts of a specific product. Unlike the Eco-score, there is no centralised hub to manage the data. There are significant challenges with this approach including a lack of standardisation of key methodological details within the life cycle assessment, and the absence of a scrutinizing body – resulting in poor comparability of impact calculations between different products and a significant risk of greenwashing if the approach was applied incorrectly.

The second approach also supports the possible communication of different impact categories, for example carbon, water and biodiversity, rather than just a single eco-score. Mondra[5] and Foodsteps[6] have led the field in this type of analysis for labelling purposes in the UK and have done a great deal to progress testing of approaches. In the absence of any government lead initiative, Foundation Earth[7] was established in 2021 with the objective of creating a central host for methodologies and labelling. However, while Foundation Earth has many signatories, a common labelling process has not yet been agreed on and scaled. Whilst this second approach would seem to be favoured in the UK, there is much work still to do before we have a common environmental labelling system, robust enough that all stakeholders can have confidence in its application.

Next steps to progress the concept

Before this UK favoured approach can really take off, a number of very significant steps need to be considered, such as:

  • Who establishes and agrees the technical methodologies for undertaking the life cycle assessments? Methodological differences can lead to significant variations of outputs.
  • Life cycle assessments are data intensive, and the data does not always exist. How much primary and secondary data should be permitted? What should be done when the data does not exist?
  • Who provides independent scrutiny for any data and assessments used to support labelling, and how is this paid for?
  • How should the data be presented? Is it A to F, A to C, or red, amber, green? Should actual data be included?


[1] Sustainable Consumer

[2] Global food production emissions make up more than a third of global total, New Scientist 2021

[3] Carrefour, Ecoscore

[4] Colruyt Group, Ecoscore

[5] Mondra

[6] Foodsteps

[7] Foundation Earth