With consumers confused by the proliferation of green labels, Freddie Dawson asks whether a single mandatory approach might be the solution?
Manufacturers looking to strengthen their green credentials are faced with an ever-growing list of voluntary environmental accreditation schemes to choose from. There are good reasons for joining them: notably, marketing opportunities, but potential financial advantages too. However, the proliferation of different labels has caused consumer confusion and, in some cases, distrust.
France has decided to address concerns from both consumers and manufacturers over front-of-pack environmental labelling by creating a government-monitored label to cover all mass-produced consumer goods. The goal is for the label to cover a wide range of environmental issues over the entire lifecycle of products with a view to eventually making it mandatory. A voluntary pilot of the scheme will commence in July.
This French proposal would standardise the information manufacturers need to provide and place it in a single location on pack, allowing consumers to easily make informed environmental decisions, says Jean-Yves Cherruault, environmental accounting manager at advocacy group, Sustain. The label would list a product's carbon emissions, with its impact on biodiversity, water usage and pollution also being considered for inclusion.
Already 230 companies have joined the voluntary pilot, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Unilever in the food sector, says Cherruault.
The aim is to review the pilot in a year's time, when issues that have arisen during the process will be addressed before a decision is made on making the scheme mandatory, he added.
Will it happen?
However, the plan is unlikely to ever to reach that stage, according to Andrew Kuyk, director of sustainability and competitiveness at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).
Kuyk suggests the French government is already back peddling on policy, since the labelling scheme was originally meant to be mandatory from the start but is now being launched as a voluntary pilot. Kuyk believes it will probably remain voluntary.
"It depends how you interpret the decision to implement the voluntary phase," said Kuyk. "They marched a lot of people up to the top of a hill on the promise that they would have a mandatory scheme by the end of the year but have now gone into a voluntary pilot instead."
Even the voluntary approach has come under criticism. While manufacturers have generally been supportive of the scheme, says Cherruault, this did not stop them from criticising aspects of it.
The original plan was to have the label on pack, but discussions with the industry over concerns such as it being problematic with cross-border trade, the language barrier, and packaging size changed that, he says. Now the plan is to have the information available on a government website, the producer's website, and, potentially, on-shelf next to the price, Cherruault explains.
But there are other problems that may be even more difficult to resolve, given the fast-approaching July implementation date. In particular, Kuyk says the scheme has not yet settled on a methodology for measuring water usage or the biodiversity of the production process.
Variations in resources required for growing food differ from year to year, making it hard to develop a methodology that can accurately depict things such as water usage, he explains. The methodology chosen for measuring carbon emissions has also been criticised by some environmental groups for being less stringent than others.
The parameters were chosen to be applicable to a wide range of products while not costing companies too much, says Cherruault. But this impacts on its accuracy and renders it unusable as a comparator between similar products, he recognises. Cherruault adds that the French government will look into adopting a more stringent methodology at the one-year review.
Problems notwithstanding, Cherruault believes that the French initiative is an indicator of the future direction of environmental labelling in the EU. He is confident that the review of the pilot will prove positive and lead to the EU's first mandatory environmental labelling scheme. "The rest of Europe is watching what happens and may adopt it later," he says.
Such an approach supports suggestions made by consumer group Which? In its survey, most consumers did not recognise environmental labels, did not understand what issues they were meant to address, and often missed them on pack due to lack of consistency in placement.
Combining environmental elements onto a single label would address many of these problems, argues Which? senior researcher for food and nutrition, Shefalee Loth. An independently verified government-monitored scheme would also apply to a range of goods and avoid the need for collaboration between various voluntary schemes, she adds.
Not in the UK
But Kuyk doubts that the UK will adopt a single government-supported green label scheme any time soon.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) which took over non-safety aspects of food labelling from the Food Standards Agency last year commissioned independent research from the University of Hertfordshire on the feasibility of introducing a government-monitored labelling scheme, says Kuyk.
He said that report concluded that front-of-pack labelling may not be the best way to communicate environmental information to consumers and that a sufficiently robust evidence base for such a scheme did not exist at the moment. "If DEFRA was looking for a green light for starting a labelling scheme, it was more of an amber or even red," he said.
Instead, Kuyk believes schemes that provide UK food manufacturers with the best objectives and guidance for undertaking environmental initiatives are a better approach such as the FDF's Five-fold Environmental Ambition.
Joining voluntary accreditation schemes such as the FDF's can lead to unexpected outcomes for manufacturers and these can be both good and bad.
One scheme that highlights its cost-saving and environmental benefits is the carbon footprint label, supported by the Carbon Trust. Manufacturers will raise their efficiencies through scrutiny of their processes and supply chains, which is a necessary part of the accreditation process, says Paul Taylor, senior footprinting consultant with the Carbon Trust.
Crisp manufacturer Walkers, which was one of the first to pilot the Trust's footprint label, is about to undergo its second recertification. The first time it managed to reduce its carbon output by 7%, leading to a saving of approximately £400,000, which it invested into improving efficiency elsewhere, said Taylor. "The reason why organisations are undertaking this is not just for a label. It is to understand what is happening within their value-chain from suppliers to consumers," he says.
But companies should choose their associations carefully, warns Liz Crosbie, md of consultancy Strategic Environmental. They must decide if highlighting certain environmental aspects of their products is beneficial to their business at all, she said.
For example, joining the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil might be a good move from an environmental perspective, but it could backfire if consumers hadn't previously realised that a product they were buying contained palm oil, Crosbie warned.
A manufacturer must also consider the ramifications of associating with certain labels, Crosbie added. Not all accreditation schemes are independently monitored and some are considered as little more than fronts for companies attempting to pursue business as usual under the cover of corporate greenwash.
Consumers may be confused, but environmental awareness is growing and three in four people now consider the environment when choosing what to buy, said Loth.
Whether green labels end up being voluntary or mandatory, it is becoming increasingly clear that manufacturers will need to scrutinise their environmental impact. Their retail customers and consumers will expect it.
Quick guide to common UK eco labels
Carbon Trust Carbon Footprint
Shows the total carbon emissions generated during a product’s life, measured as grams of carbon dioxide per serving, displayed on a stylised foot. The emissions are calculated using a publicly available methodology and recertification takes place every two years.
The ethical trading label mainly aims to win a fair price for producers of food products. But it also includes certain green elements, such as ensuring sustainable production and environmental protection.
Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC)
The FSC label covers paper/card packaging obtained from sustainable timber resources. The logo's presence means the timber used in the product did not contribute to the destruction of the world's forests.
LEAF stands for Linking Environment and Farming and the organisation promotes environmentally responsible farming. LEAF works with farmers, processors and retailers to join up sustainability issues in the supply chain.
Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)
The MSC provides certification of fish caught in the wild. It looks at issues such as maintaining fish stocks and balance in oceanic eco-systems.
The Soil Association is probably the most recognised certifying body for organic products in the UK. Its standards emphasise issues such as limiting the use of pesticides, chemical fertilisers and additives in food as well as promoting free-range animals, prohibiting cruelty and banning genetically modified products in animal feed.
Similar to Fairtrade, the Rainforest Alliance label encompasses more than just environmental issues. The label ensures responsible behaviour with regards to natural resources, the environment and local communities.
The UK-only standard includes assurances on environmental impact of farmed products, such as minimising the use of pesticides, but focuses more on animal welfare and food safety. The scheme is another cross-chain accreditation looking at aspects of production, packing, storage and transport.
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil's Greenpalm scheme
The Greenpalm label deals with the social and environmental impact of producing palm oil and recognises producers that work in a sustainable fashion.