The future for footprinting

Late last year, Quorn, the world’s biggest meat alternative brand, started putting ‘farm to shop’ carbon footprint data on packs of its top selling 30 products. This was no quiet testing of the waters – it was supported by a significant marketing campaign - ‘Take a step in the right direction’ - featuring TV advertising centred around the food’s carbon and climate impact.

For Peter Harrison, CCO of Quorn Foods, offering carbon footprint data to customers is about giving consumers the information they need and want to make informed decisions about the food they eat. He is actively encouraging other brands to join them: “Currently no RDAs exist for carbon emissions, but we hope that if other food brands follow suit, we will be able to make better comparisons in our shopping baskets.”

Quorn is certainly right to identify a strong consumer desire for carbon footprinting information. This month sees the release of new YouGov research commissioned by the Carbon Trust, that confirms sustained high levels of consumer support for carbon labelling across France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the US.

For example, two-thirds (64 per cent) of consumers in all countries surveyed said they are more likely to think positively about a brand that could demonstrate it had lowered the carbon footprint of its products. While 80, 82 and 79 per cent of consumers respectively in France, Italy and Spain said they think recognisable labels on products, where their carbon footprint has been measured and companies are making reduction efforts, is a good idea.

The survey questioned over 10,000 adults and the level of support for carbon footprint labelling was in line with survey results from last year.

A period of consolidation

So, will we see more companies putting carbon on the label?

We are certainly witnessing a strong increase in demand for product carbon footprinting and a linked growth in our footprint label licences (although not all clients undertake footprinting in order to then label their products). We are currently working with over 40 companies on labelling projects, some of them including global labelling licences.

This isn’t the first time that carbon footprint labelling has been in demand. In 2007, we launched the world’s first carbon footprint label and thereafter companies such as Tesco and PepsiCo carried labels on pack, including the specific CO2e figure, for prominent product lines. 

But after a few years of strong interest, a number of factors conspired to dampen interest in on-pack labelling, through the middle part of the last decade:

  • Consumers at that time weren’t deemed sufficiently interested in a product’s carbon footprint.
  • Carbon footprinting, despite the emergence of agreed technical standards, was seen as complex and expensive.
  • Competition for on-pack space was strong and other important information, such as nutritional data, were well established.
  • Without a critical mass of labelled products with specific carbon figures, within a specific retail category for example, consumers had nothing against which to compare a product’s carbon footprint.

While on-pack labelling may have taken a step back, interest in carbon footprinting as a business information and decision-making tool persisted during this time. This has been amplified as organisations have gone beyond their own direct operations resulting in supply chains coming under increasing scrutiny, and the ambition to reduce environmental impacts across the full value chain has been adopted by more businesses. Indeed, business-to-business communication of carbon footprinting data was steadily rising even while business-to-consumer communication faltered.

What we are now seeing, however, is a resurgence of both corporate and consumer interest in labelling. 

The new imperative

Corporates are in a very different place than they were just ten years ago – many are setting stretching science-based targets for carbon reductions and collaborating with their supply chains to deliver on them. National targets for net zero emissions have been declared in a number of jurisdictions and companies are setting equivalent targets in the corporate context. Meanwhile, the Taskforce on Climate-related Financial Disclosures is reflecting the call for an increasing level of climate risk analysis at board level, which is raising the importance of carbon in terms of both corporate strategy and investment finance allocation. 

Consumers too are ever more focused on the carbon impacts of their purchasing decisions. They are used to having accurate data at their fingertips in order to facilitate decision-making, such as health data on their phone or watch. So, for many, it is no longer acceptable that, when they want to play a part in tackling climate change, they struggle to access the necessary data to inform their choices and they are pushing companies to plug this knowledge gap.

As interest grows, so does media and public scrutiny of companies’ claims and this again is driving corporate demand for product footprinting services. To substantiate claims around climate action, it is more important than ever that they are based on credible and robust data that meets international certification standards. Business customers too are continuing to seek legitimate carbon footprint information in order to achieve their Scope 3 emission targets across their value chain.

While there have been a number of government-backed carbon labelling schemes, these have had mixed degrees of take-up and there has been little appetite to mandate activity. For now, we are  likely to see companies independently responding to consumer and investor demand, resulting in a growing roster of products that have their carbon footprint data available – whether on-pack, in product documentation or on a website.

Reaching a critical mass of products that are publishing a footprint figure in order to facilitate accurate comparison may yet be some years away. But it is an increasingly likely prospect.

First published in BusinessGreen.

Find out more

Product carbon footprint labelling: consumer research 2020 (full report)

Product carbon footprint certification and labelling