food plate eco environment

Could eco-labels successfully communicate the environmental impact of food at product level? The majority do not.

This could be damaging. While research is needed on how much greenwashing derails consumers and food producers in making informed decisions, the severity and ubiquity of greenwashing in the UK is apparent. Any misinfomation in eco-labels could have dire consequences for UK’s food security and environmental goals.

The low level of legal requirements for the transparency and accountability of operators is compounded by a low level of institutional awareness on the technical limitations of eco-labels to present true and fair views of the environmental realities. Currently, there is no legal requirement in the UK for eco-labels to communicate the limitations of the information presented to users. 

The Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP) aims to tackle this issue. It is looking to standardise the methodology and data sources used for measuring and reporting Scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions of food and drink, and to establish a mandatory methodology for voluntary food eco-labels.

However, despite the introduction of the FDTP as “a partnership between government, industry and experts”, the expertise and interest of sustainable and agroecological farming and food production are not materially represented.

Another legislative development that could safeguard against greenwashing in eco-labels is the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill. If passed, the CMA will have new penalty powers to determine and sanction breaches of certain consumer laws, like the civil courts.

The penalties imposable by the CMA include fines – the higher of £300,000 or 10% of the company’s annual global turnover. This is remarkably different to the EU ‘Green Claims’ Directive pre-emptive strategy, in which companies have to obtain a certificate of conformity through third-party verification before making any environmental claim in commercial communications. It is still unclear how the work of the FDTP will correspond with the Bill and the CMA.

On 6 December, IGD submitted its recommendations to Defra on governance and methodology for the UK food industry, and communicated the plan to roll out its own front-of-pack eco-label next year. As all IGD’s directors are top executives of food manufacturers and retailers, the recommendations provide significant potential for industry domination on eco-label governance.

This could pose governance risk and thwart future development of eco-label and food environmental footprinting, and thereby derail the government’s commitment to improving food system transparency and accountability in the UK. (Read CLEAR’s joint letter to the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs here

For instance, it was only after almost a year of engagement with agroecological stakeholders that the final version of IGD’s recommendations included considerations to differentiate methods of production, such as methods of farming, in assessing the environmental impact of food and drink. This should be a requisite principle for all food eco-footpriting. Alas, it is still not commonly practised by eco-label operators. A range of poor practices remained in IGD’s methodological recommendations.

CLEAR is sponsoring a review on the methodological robustness of food eco-labels operating in the UK, including the IGD’s methodological recommendations. We have communicated to Defra our intention to submit a report of the review to the FDTP in July 2024.

In reviewing press regulations published in 2021, Sir Brian Leveson, who chaired the independent inquiry, remarked that the industry should not be marking their own homework. This principle should be applied to green claims in the food industry, too.