It might not capture as many front pages as new photos of the PM toasting his Downing Street team, but news that supermarkets are about to launch trials of the industry’s first harmonised eco-label could have huge ramifications for food and drink.
Co-op, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have announced they will pilot the scheme, a combination of an eco-scoring system along with colour-coded elements similar to the health traffic lights system.
Now the UK is free to go its own way with front-of-pack labelling after Brexit, the plan is for the new eco-score to sit alongside health traffic lights, giving consumers far more information – or information overload, depending on your viewpoint.
The eco-label will show a score based on the impact products have on climate change, land use and water supplies and quality, with first trials limited to a panel of consumers from the four supermarkets and plans for a wider rollout as early as next year.
If the trials are a success, IGD, which already has other retailers and major suppliers waiting in the wings, hopes it could be rolled out as early as next year, in a move which it believes could transform transparency over the impact of food and drink on the environment.
The developments come at a potentially pivotal time for the issue of transparency around food products when it comes both to the environment and the war on obesity.
Just last week, Wrap released new reporting protocols for food supply chain emissions which it is hoped will be a “game changer” in the battle to hit the UK’s greenhouse gas reduction targets. In much the same way, IGD and its partners hope the new front-of-pack labels will create a single, industry-wide scheme based on common global standards that everyone will follow.
Of course, the task of making that happen is devilishly difficult, with one source describing it as “like herding cats” – something that fortunately IGD of all bodies will be used to by now.
However, one of the big questions is what it will mean for the various rival eco-labelling systems that have sprung up in recent months.
It was only in June last year that companies including Nestlé , M&S, Co-op and Sainsbury’s, all of which are now behind IGD’s scheme, were involved in the launch of Foundation Earth, an alternative front-of-pack eco-score measuring carbon emissions, water usage and impact on biodiversity loss. Sound familiar?
As yet it’s not clear if they will withdraw support from Foundation Earth now that IGD is on the scene.
Meanwhile more than 50 of Lidl’s own-label products carry its Eco-Score label to give shoppers “a better understanding of the environmental consequences, at a glance.”
And only yesterday Foodsteps – a start-up that allows brands to calculate and label the environmental footprint of products from farm to fork – announced it had raised $4.1m in seed funding.
Yet if IGD has its way, industry and the growing number of companies that have spotted a gap in the market for eco-labelling will somehow have to agree to just one system – which will mean several casualties.
One source told The Grocer they believed it was vital for any eco label to be seen by consumers to be independent of the industry, something an IGD run scheme would hardly be seen to be.
“Every piece of literature that’s been published suggest it is never a good idea for the industry to mark its own homework,” says the source.
IGD says it is aware of other schemes and has “consulted with a number of them”, pointing out that it also has Defra and Wrap on side.
Yet as well as looking set for an inevitable collision with rivals in the space, IGD will also have its work cut out to convince retailers and suppliers to agree to stop viewing sustainability as a USP and a competitive advantage over rivals.
Still, the potential is obvious, and together with other moves to “target, measure and act” against key issues such as health and the environment, the result of the trials could have far-reaching positive consequences.
Barring yet more delays, next month will see the long-awaited government response to Henry Dimbleby’ s National Food Strategy, which included a call for food companies to submit to mandatory annual reporting on a series of such metrics.
Sources suggest IGD’s involvement could be a precursor to the launch of a national food database, which would be able to power a far more evidence-based approach to the issues facing the supply chain.
This would also go much further than a front-of-pack label could ever do, of course – especially when you question how much information industry can expect consumers to take in when they shop.
There are other big questions, of course. Who will collect the data, and who will run it? Will it be independent? And what will it mean for those further down the supply chain, who will have to report with a fraction of the resources as the big players behind today’s launch?