Carbon Labeling: Who is Ahead of the Game?

With climate change discussions being elevated on a local, regional, and global scale, many individuals are considering how their personal choices, including foods they consume, impact the environment. This has translated to a resurgence of interest in carbon labeling food products. Now that we understand the basics of carbon labeling and what it means for the food industry, let’s look at the food industry’s carbon label leaders.


Carbon labeling first began in the mid-2000s and companies like Tesco and PepsiCo began to introduce the label. However, this initial stint was a short-lived endeavor and ended a few years later due to, in part, lack of impact with consumers, difficulty in calculating emissions, and other companies not following suit.


In the roughly 15 years since carbon labeling was first introduced, consumer interest in and business commitments to combating climate change has skyrocketed. For example, companies like Danone, General Mills Inc., Nestle, Olam International, Sodexo, and PepsiCo Inc. have signed a United Nations pledge to reduce their emissions with the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. According to a study conducted by Carbon Trust, 67 percent of consumers in the US, Canada, and parts of Europe support the idea of a recognizable carbon label that indicates a product was made with a commitment to measuring and reducing the company’s carbon footprint. Some food companies, as a result of heightened climate consciousness, are capitalizing on this opportunity and reviving the carbon label.


Who is already using the carbon label? Who is on deck?

Quorn, a plant-based protein company, became the first major food brand to introduce carbon labeling in early 2020. The company displays the Carbon Reduction Label directly on 30 of its most popular products. The company’s Farm to Shop carbon footprint data is certified by the Carbon Trust, who first introduced the Carbon Reduction Label in the mid-2000s.


In the Summer of 2020, Just Salads, a New York fast-food restaurant, introduced a carbon label next to each of their menu items. They use a tool developed in-house with the support of New York University to calculate CO2 emission estimates for each of their ingredients from cradle-to-gate. Their average menu item generates 0.80 kg CO2e.


Panera introduced “Cool Food Meals” on their menu in the Fall of 2020. With assistance from the World Resource Institute (WRI), Panera assessed the greenhouse gas emissions for each menu item. If the item fell below WRI’s recommended daily and per meal carbon footprint, the food was certified as a “Cool Food Meal.” Today, 55% of their menu items carry this classification.


Notably, Unilever announced their intention to put carbon labels on their 70,000 products, which include food and beverage household brands like Lipton, Klondike, and Ben & Jerry’s. Nestle is reportedly also considering the carbon label as part of their climate commitments.


How can my company get on board?

For food producers, manufacturers, and stakeholders there are resources to gain more insight into what carbon labeling means. The Food Institute, partnering with food and agriculture law firm, Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz PC (OFW), is holding a webinar on February 4, 2021. The Carbon Labeling Guidelines – For the Food Industry web event will discuss everything from the origins of carbon emissions labeling to what companies are doing now, the legal framework, and the roles of USDA, the FTC, and the FDA.


The event invites not only food and beverage industry professionals and manufacturers looking to learn more about implementing a carbon labeling program, but also retail executives, regulatory affairs professionals, chief sustainability officers, and quality assurance VPs who are looking to develop best practices for a carbon labeling program and a dependable certification program can also greatly benefit from the topics being discussed.


For more information about what your company can do about carbon emissions labeling programs, contact Bruce Silvergladel Principal, OFW Law.


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