Woman in tea field

black&white #24: Eco-labelling – a nudge in the right direction?

3 min steep

Foundation Earth Scores

Foundation Earth's environmental scoring system.

We recently mentioned the report that tea has a considerably smaller carbon footprint than coffee. Specifically, a cup of coffee a day contributes around 155kg of greenhouse gases to your annual emissions tally, but tea contributes just 15kg. We also added a small disclaimer that much as we liked the story, nothing is ever that clear cut and emissions will vary considerably from brand to brand. It’s one of the reasons why it's so tricky to shop sustainably. But what if we as consumers could ascertain the environmental impact of a product simply from a label?

The idea of a front-of-pack eco-label has been gaining traction with environmental organisations, the food and drink industry and policymakers for some time. It’s classic nudge theory: the idea that you can influence or nudge people to make one decision over another by shaping the environment around them in small but suggestive ways - some good, some questionable. Examples include the messages and images on tobacco packs, sweets at children's eye level at check-outs and restaurants that list aperitives at the top of the menu, so it's the first thing you see and are tempted to have one. It’s a popular, low cost approach which upholds the principle of consumer choice. Food labelling falls into this type of behavioural science – and already all prepackaged food is required by law to display certain nutritional values. Foundation Earth, an independent non-profit organisation, is planning to roll out a similar scheme with eco-labels later this year. Unlike previous iterations of environmental labels trialled over the past decade or so, Foundation Earth has created a labelling system that measures carbon output as well as other environmental markers like water use, pollution and biodiversity. This sounds promising.

Foundation Earth Partners

Food businesses and organisations which have signed up to take part in the pilot scheme.

Already, they’ve got some big players on board. Food giants like Nestlé and PepsiCo have signed up to its pilot scheme, as well as Tesco, M&S and Sainsbury’s. Foundation Earth says the benefits of an eco-label are two-fold. Firstly, it would help consumers to choose a more environmentally-friendly product. Secondly, it would motivate producers to adopt more sustainable practises in the pursuit of higher eco-scores. Would these companies still display ratings even if their products scored low? Admittedly, not all of them have a great track record when it comes to transparency and traceability in their supply chains. But Emma Keller, Head of Sustainability at Nestlé UK & Ireland, assured BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme that they will put out the scores as they are, and then will use that to reformulate and improve their eco-scores. For other manufacturers who aren’t so transparent, the fact that their rivals are voluntarily offering up this kind of information should motivate them to either reformulate or follow suit. In theory.

Environmental Scores in use.

How the environmental score is displayed on a product. Photograph by BBC Radio 4 Food Programme.

But changing consumers’ longstanding habits isn’t easy. A survey conducted for the New Statesman found that 47% of participants supported an environmental food label. That figure fell to 37% when individuals were asked whether they thought such a label would impact their purchasing decisions. Labels are also reductive. We’ve spoken before about ultra-processed foods manufacturers making misleading claims (like ‘low in fat’ or ‘probiotic’) on their packaging. And in fact, many of these industrial products might score better on nutrition labels than some unprocessed wholefoods. A handful of raw nuts has a higher level of fat than a packet of quavers – but which makes a healthier snack? Similar issues could arise with eco-labels. They don’t, for example, take into account social or ethical considerations in supply chains; studies have shown battery-farmed chickens can release less greenhouse gas emissions than free-range chickens because of manure management and feed efficiency. Is this really the way forward?

It’s a complex issue, even without the social and ethical considerations. Foundation Earth’s eco-label takes into account four environmental markers; carbon, pollution, water scarcity and biodiversity. They apply each of these four markers to another four aspects of the supply chain; ingredients, transport, packaging and retail. Handmade, loose leaf tea would score pretty well on being one of the least processed, healthy, low calorie commodities you can buy. However, since Europe cannot produce tea in scale,  we need to ship it in from all over the world and transport carries an environmental impact. At least tea is light-weight and not perishable so we can ship it by boat or train instead of air. The farms and cooperatives we source from are small-scale and use ecological farming techniques that rely on nature rather than chemicals. In this sense, we’d score well when it comes to  biodiversity, pollution and water use. Then when it comes to packaging, our need for a high-barrier to keep our teas fresh and delicious means that we've yet to find the completely perfect, plastic-free solution for our outer packaging. But we’re working on it. All our tea bags are of course plant-derived and plastic-free. This all goes to illustrate how tangled these assessments can be.
JDG Vietnam Tea Factory

Tea being handcrafted in a small, artisan tea factory in Vietnam.

Even so, the eco-label pilot is encouraging and could be part of the transformation we need to tackle climate change. As ever, it can’t be expected to do much in isolation. We need progressive, interconnected policies that tackle the root causes of highly complex issues in the food system and our environment.

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