Multiple eco-labelling schemes are in competition as industry and environmental campaigners battle over what works best. But the government is dragging its feet
It’s over a decade since a new system of front-of-pack nutrition labelling was launched in the UK, after years of bitter industry in-fighting as well as bust-ups with the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency, before a consensus of sorts was finally reached.
Even so it was viewed by many as an impenetrable, jargon-heavy system, embraced by some companies and snubbed by others. And while simple on the surface, the intricacies of the hybrid traffic light label – as it became known – left many consumers confused, while obesity levels continue to rise, of course.
But now, as the UK races to meet its environmental commitments, the industry faces a new labelling fight, with rival front-of-pack eco-labels jockeying for position to address the environmental impact of food and drink products. And it promises to make the battle over nutrition labelling look like a walk in the park.
So what labels are out there? And what hopes are there of alignment between industry, government and environmentalists?
With no internationally agreed standard for eco-labelling – or even what data should be measured by food and drink companies to gauge the environmental impact of their products – rival governments across the EU and around the world have begun drawing up their own plans, while no less than 350 different eco-labels have emerged globally.
So confusion reigns for consumers, and frankly the situation is no easier for the industry, with inevitable claims of greenwashing threatening to discredit companies who are meaningfully trying to address their impact on the planet.
IGD role in creating a single industry system
The increasingly chaotic situation prompted supermarket and supplier bosses to work with the IGD since the summer of 2021 to urgently bring about a collaboration between business, academia and government, with the ultimate aim of creating an eco-label around which the entire industry could unite.
Last month, the IGD’s proposed system was unveiled. It would see UK consumers get a new fridge freezer-style eco-label on the front of pack, combining traffic light colouring, like those that caused such debate in the HFSS area, with an A-E scoring system.
The summary of evidence and recommendations that went to the government runs to more than 200 pages and involves collaboration from a powerful steering group of backers, including the likes of Tesco, M&S and Asda, as well as major suppliers such as Nestlé, PepsiCo and 2 Sisters.
The steering group’s “guiding principles” include an insistence the system should be “led by science”, be “good but not perfect”, “inclusive and scalable” and provide a level of “international harmonisation”.
Yet IGD quickly found itself on a collision course with rival eco-label schemes lobbying for support across Europe. One that shares many of the same visual attributes as IGD’s is the system proposed by Foundation Earth, an independent, non-profit organisation that’s been drawing up plans for front-of-pack environmental scores on food products since 2021.
With its scientific committee including grandees such as the French government’s eco-labelling project co-ordinator and Professor Chris Elliott, the post-horsemeat scandal review author, to name but two, it claims to be on a mission to create “impactful, harmonised eco-labelling”.
Predictably, despite both mentioning the need for harmony, relations between the two bodies have been strained. The Grocer understands there has been no contact for months, despite some initial overtures.
Other key eco-label systems at a glance
What is it? French not-for profit system backed by a 2020 French decree, owned by the Yuka app. Used in France and Belgium and tested in other countries, including Germany.
Who backs it? Carrefour and Lidl.
Eco Impact by Foundation Earth
What is it? Independent not-for-profit body calling for harmonised EU labels.
Who backs it? Used on nearly 200 products in the UK, including brands such as Abel & Cole, Meatless Farm, Mighty and Finnebrogue.
What is it? A system developed by an EU-funded consortium based in Spain and Belgium.
Who backs it? Piloted by Spanish food companies including Kaiku, Avramar and Grupo Calco, trading across more than 20 categories.
What is it? Developed by ITAB and Very Good Future, in collaboration with Sayari, a specialist consultancy, using French state databases.
Who backs it? Being trialled in 30 countries across 207 businesses, including Nestlé, Carrefour and Lidl.
What is it? Claims to be the longest-running life-cycle assessment system, founded in 2009.
Who backs it? Used by more than 150 Swiss restaurants and said to have calculated more than 100,000 environmental impacts across 22,000 markets.
Foundation Earth is understood to have presented rival plans to Defra in the same week IGD unveiled its proposals, though it is less forthcoming about what they entail and has nothing like the same backing from UK companies.
However, it warns of mass confusion if countries seek to create standalone eco-labels, and CEO Cliona Howie launched a stinging attack, claiming the IGD risks creating a “bureaucratic nightmare” for companies operating in different countries.
“Our position is still that the food system operates on global food supply chains, therefore a universal system is best for the food system value chain actors for comparability and credibility, as well as the way to accelerate transformational impact at scale,” says Howie.
“Other comparable scientific standards are internationalised for these reasons, without even mentioning the confusion standalone systems would cause for consumers.”
Howie reserves particular criticism for carbon-only impact assessments “because the trade-offs are not only detrimental environmentally, but also have significant health implications (water pollution, soil health, ecotoxicity, etc). A multicriteria framework is needed for a more holistic and inclusive understanding of how to build sustainable food systems.”
IGD’s plans are at least holistic, with products receiving an overall score based on a life-cycle assessment approach covering four key elements – climate change, water use, water quality and land use – all based on the concept of so-called “planetary boundaries”, which measure the impact the earth can tolerate for a given environmental indicator.
But despite the multicriteria approach, the IGD also faces accusations that these boundaries are effectively a cover for a system set up to protect “mass food production” technologies. Last month, the Sustainable Food Trust, Compassion in World Farming and Clear (a consortium of nearly 50 farming and food groups) wrote to Defra claiming the proposals woefully underestimate the complexity of the industry impact on the environment, and in effect “dumb down” the data in the name of practicality.
“IGD’s proposal, if adopted by the government, could confuse and mislead consumers and create unintended social and environmental outcomes,” claims Clear engagement lead Catherine Chong. “Clear has been raising the chronic issues of industry practices in eco-labelling as well as broader socioecological footprinting in agrifood for the past two years. To IGD, we specifically raised our concerns on the common use of poor life-cycle data. There is a very high chance of perverting our farming system’s transition to a less agroecological and more sustainable future.”
Clear has warned ministers that IGD’s recommendations represent the interests of large food manufacturers and retailers, not consumers or farmers. “The recommended impact categories are anaemic – grossly insufficient in supporting UK and global sustainability goals,” adds Chong.
IGD, for its part, strongly rejects claims it has not consulted properly with eco-groups, or other bodies, on its plans. “We absolutely want to learn from others,” claims Naomi Kissman, IGD’s social impact director, who previously held senior corporate affairs roles at Tesco and McColl’s. “We’ve been through a huge process of consultation with the industry via its steering group, which is made up of representatives from companies right across the industry, and we’ve also held different phases of consumer research.
“We’ve consulted extremely widely on these plans, not just with industry but with lots of different technical experts and academics, and have had an independent peer review from the World Resources Institute. We’ve been really open with the government about the next phase of our work. There’s more work to be done on the data, we know that.”
As well as overcoming a viper’s nest of vested interests and cut-throat competition, the future of eco-labels also relies on the government being able to get its act together. And while freedom to create the UK’s own front-of-pack labels was billed as one of the fringe benefits of Brexit, there is little to indicate eco-labelling ranks anywhere near the top of Rishi Sunak’s priorities.
When the government finally published its delayed food strategy in 2022, in response to food tsar Henry Dimbleby’s proposals, it promised mandatory requirements for anyone wanting to develop eco-labels and make sustainability claims. And last year’s launch of the Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP) led to high-level talks between the industry and Defra about creating metrics across key areas of both environment and health, one tranche of which has been the discussion around labelling.
Yet while both mandatory and voluntary schemes have been debated, Defra has been quiet about its plans. It is understood Defra and the FDTP had planned to make an announcement about plans for mandatory carbon reporting before COP28, which would have been a huge boost in the drive for mandatory eco-labelling. But Sunak’s u-turn on environmental issues just weeks before meant it never happened. And those mandatory targets are now not expected to emerge before the general election.
The Grocer understands a government consultation on the future of eco-labelling is due to be launched early this year, but sources suggest it will be very broad in its aims. A second, technical consultation, which would outline in detail the rules for eco-labels in the UK would need to follow – for which there is no date.
And the IGD’s eco-label proposal also needs further work before it will be ready. The biggest gap, as it acknowledges, is on the data side, but IGD also says 2024 will be about developing a new environmental labelling toolkit, as well as drawing up suggestions for rules and governance that would enable consistent operation of environmental labelling.
Clearly, it is not a system upon which everyone can quickly unite, even if it was never meant to be perfect. And that’s without the added complication of a general election and the likelihood of a new administration to approve it, oversee it, or seek out yet another alternative.
IGD’s eco-label recommendations at a glance
IGD says its plans for an eco-label could nudge consumers towards buying products that do the least harm to the planet.
The label would look similar to energy labels used on fridge freezers, with a label combining traffic lights and an A-E scoring system.
It recommends the label uses a “life-cycle assessment approach covering climate change, water use, water quality and land use impact of products”.
IGD has called on the industry and government to develop supply chain-specific scores and to score products against a set of so-called planetary boundaries, which measure the impact the Earth can tolerate for a given indicator.
The proposals also look at how the scheme could get over operational challenges, including how it could work in settings such as out of home and online. Creating a level playing field is a key challenge, as it’s proved with many industry labelling and reporting initiatives.
IGD also calls for a “level of international alignment” and says it is important for the labelling scheme to be “interoperable” with other initiatives.
It also stresses the need for incentives to encourage smaller companies to engage with the system, warning lack of take-up across categories could damage the effectiveness of the system, with companies demonised for taking part while others hide behind non-specific data – a major problem in previous initiatives such as the government’s sugar reduction programme and the Responsibility Deal.
IGD warns that with the proliferation of schemes, a consistent approach led by legislation is needed to avoid consumer confusion, cost and divergence. Finally, it calls for a major, consumer-facing PR campaign to publicise the new system.