June/July 2022 Issue

Food Labeling: Carbon Footprint Labeling
By Jamie Santa Cruz
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 24, No. 5, P. 16

It’s a growing, honorable trend that’s not without its challenges.

With sustainability an increasing concern, a growing number of companies are taking a new step toward transparency about their environmental impact: They’re adding carbon footprint labels to their products. Such labels are popping up across a range of industries—from Allbirds, a San Francisco shoe company, to Logitech, a maker of technology accessories—but one of the sectors where they’ve received the most attention is the food industry.1

Although carbon footprint labels are still rather novel, their use is drawing new attention to the role of food in climate change—and they hold the potential to influence both manufacturer and consumer behavior in a more environmentally friendly direction.

What Are Carbon Footprint Labels?
As the name implies, carbon footprint labels indicate the amount of carbon dioxide emitted in the process of manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of a given product. In some cases, the labels reflect emissions from cradle-to-gate (ie, from the point of raw material production to the point of retail); in other cases, they reflect the emissions from cradle-to-grave (ie, from the point of raw material production all the way through the product’s use and eventual disposal).2 The labels typically have a dual purpose: They help companies identify their own environmental impact, in theory enabling them to reduce it, and they also empower customers to make more environmentally friendly choices.

Because carbon footprint labels aren’t standardized, the information they include can vary considerably. Some options include the following:

• quantitative labels, which state the carbon emissions of the product in carbon dioxide equivalents (for example, 0.38 kg CO2e/kg);
• stamp of approval labels, which indicate that the product meets a particular threshold for being low carbon; and
• rating labels, such as labels with star ratings (more stars for a lower carbon footprint) or stoplight color-coding (in which the label is green, yellow, or red depending on whether the product’s carbon emissions are low, medium, or high).

Companies Joining the Effort
As early as 2007, food and beverage conglomerate PepsiCo and supermarket chain Tesco both began experimenting with carbon footprint labels on their products.3 Both efforts were short lived, in part because other retailers didn’t follow suit.

However, the concept has garnered new interest again in the last few years. Since 2019, a variety of smaller companies have gotten in on the game, including Oatly, a maker of plant milk, and Quorn, a producer of meat substitutes.4,5 Last year, British consumer goods giant Unilever, which makes Hellmann’s mayonnaise and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, announced plans to add carbon footprint labels to all 75,000 of its products.6 And, by the end of 2021, more than two dozen other food companies, including Nestle and PepsiCo, had backed a project from the nonprofit Foundation Earth to roll out color-coded labels of environmental impact on their food products.7

Carbon labels are starting to make inroads in the restaurant world, too. Fast-casual chains Just Salad and Panera Bread are leaders in this area, with both taking the step in 2020 to include carbon labeling for every offering on their respective menus.8 “We were very much inspired by the Nutrition Facts label,” says Sandra Noonan, chief sustainability officer at Just Salad. “If the existential and health threat to humans in the 21st century is climate change, then the Nutrition Facts label doesn’t seem to be enough anymore.”

Labeling Challenges
Carbon footprint labels can be difficult for food companies to develop, largely because getting an accurate label means that companies have to account for the specific source of each of their ingredients. “If you just want to take an average of the carbon intensity of a given food—like beef on average creates 27 kg of carbon dioxide equivalents—that’s one thing you can do,” says Rachael Shwom, PhD, an associate professor in the department of human ecology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. But different farmers require different energy inputs to get water to their fields, use fertilizers of differing energy intensity, and need different levels of energy to transport their products. To get accuracy, “you have to be very specific, because where things are grown matters, and how they’re grown and transported matters,” Shwom says.

Communicating effectively with consumers about those emissions is also a challenge. “One of the considerations for a restaurant is you have limited real estate to communicate,” Noonan says. “Our guests are looking to order lunch and dinner fast.” Just Salad handled this challenge by showing the exact carbon emissions associated with each dish but giving customers cognitive shortcuts to help them understand the numbers’ significance. Specifically, the company displayed a small globe icon on its menu boards next to the carbon footprint to indicate a lower environmental impact. The chain also curated a separate section of its menu to highlight offerings with the lowest carbon footprint. (Originally, Just Salad displayed carbon emissions for all items on its instore menus, but the company recently has simplified this to show the carbon footprint only for items in the Earth-friendly section of its menu, with details for other menu items online only.)

Panera Bread, by contrast, made different choices. The company considered putting the quantitative carbon footprint on menu items, but they worried customers wouldn’t know what to do with the numbers. “We wanted it to be a label that was actionable,” says Sara Burnett, vice president of Food Beliefs and Sustainability at Panera. “We said, we really want more of a certification or a stamp of approval, something that gives me confidence this is a good choice.” Ultimately, the company opted for the “Cool Food” labeling system developed by World Resources Institute. In this system, all menu items that meet the institute’s threshold for being low carbon are labeled with a simple Cool Food icon. The icons don’t appear on in-store menu boards but are displayed in Panera’s digital space (where about one-half of the chain’s sales originate). The company then sends e-mails to guests who have purchased Cool Food meals, letting them know the significance of their purchase. “These are some of our most engaged e-mails,” Burnett says.

Pros and Cons of Labeling
While carbon footprint labeling helps consumers understand the impact of a food on the environment, it has important limitations. For one thing, it doesn’t capture the totality of a food’s socio-environmental impact. According to Mary Purdy, MS, RDN, an integrative eco-dietitian and an adjunct faculty member in the nutrition department at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, carbon footprint labeling is “not looking at the loss of biodiversity, it’s not looking at the health of the soil or how much water was used, it’s not looking at whether the animal was treated well, whether the people that grew and processed the food were paid fairly.”

Another limitation of carbon footprint labels is that they’re vulnerable to manipulation. Consider seal of approval labels that declare products to be “low carbon”; industry leaders have an incentive for the threshold for “low carbon” to be set at a comparatively higher value so as to include more products—but the higher the threshold, the less meaning the label has.

To ensure legitimacy of these labels moving forward, Shwom says, it will be important for them to be validated through third-party certifying institutions that reflect the concerns of various stakeholders (not just industry) and can ensure transparency and credibility. Such certification could be handled through a federal agency (as is the case with the Energy Star program for appliances), but it also can be led by a nonprofit organization. The Carbon Trust is an example of a nonprofit organization that operates with credibility and transparency to help organizations certify their carbon footprint.

Despite the limitations and challenges of carbon footprint labeling, Shwom argues that getting companies on board with labeling is worth it—not just because of how the labels empower consumers but also because they may influence manufacturer behavior.9 A useful analogy is what happened when manufacturers were required to display the trans fat content of their products. Many manufacturers thought, “‘Oh, ok, now we have a product that’s high in trans fats, and this is not anything we really want to publish on the label,’” Shwom says. “And, therefore, due to anticipating reputational risk, they just changed the product.”

RDs’ Roles
The growing trend toward carbon footprint labeling offers significant opportunities for dietitians to help increase awareness about the impact food has on the environment. The following are two ways RDs can help:

Draw attention to companies reporting their climate impact. Dietitians may have some opportunity to do this in one-on-one counseling, Purdy says, but social media offers a greater opportunity for impact. “So many dietitians are online, they have social media platforms, they’re on YouTube,” Purdy says, so highlight the companies doing well. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for us to be influencers.”
Prioritize lower-carbon offerings where you work, such as a hospital or school. “[Dietitians] choose what foods are in that cafeteria, in that vending machine, on that school lunch menu,” Purdy says. Whenever feasible, source food from companies that are using labels or create-your-own labels to highlight cafeteria offerings that are environmentally friendly.

So far, in the words of Purdy, the interest in carbon footprint labeling is still at the level of a “seed,” not a “movement.” But as dietitians help champion the cause, the world may soon see many more carbon labeling efforts—and a healthier Earth as a result.

— Jamie Santa Cruz is a freelance writer based in Parker, Colorado.

1. Wolfram J. Companies bet carbon labels can help the climate. Will consumers catch on? Washington Post. June 17, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/2021/06/17/carbon-footprint-emissions-label/. Accessed April 4, 2022.

2. Product carbon footprint label. Carbon Trust website. https://www.carbontrust.com/what-we-do/assurance-and-certification/product-carbon-footprint-label. Accessed April 4, 2022.

3. McEachran R. Want to know the carbon footprint of your food? Raconteur website. https://www.raconteur.net/sustainability/carbon-footprint-food-labels/. Published June 24, 2020. Accessed April 4, 2022.

4. Oat drink with carbon dioxide equivalents. Oatly website. https://www.oatly.com/en-us/stuff-we-make/climate-footprint. Accessed April 4, 2022.

5. Carbon emissions: it's time to take action. Quorn website. https://www.quorn.co.uk/carbon-footprint. Accessed April 4, 2022.

6. Manning L. Unilever to test carbon footprint labels on products in 2021: report. Food Dive website. https://www.fooddive.com/news/unilever-to-test-carbon-footprint-labels-on-products-in-2021-report/603432/. Published July 15, 2021. Accessed March 30, 2022.

7. Quinn A. Food giants try carbon labels to solve their climate problem. Bloomberg website. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-10-27/how-green-is-your-pantry-carbon-labels-will-let-you-know. Published October 26, 2021. Accessed March 30, 2022.

8. Klein D. Saving the planet, one menu item at a time. QSR website. https://www.qsrmagazine.com/fast-casual/saving-planet-one-menu-item-time. Published October 2020. Accessed April 4, 2022.

9. Taufique KMR, Nielsen KS, Dietz T, Shwom R, Stern PC, Vandenbergh MP. Revisiting the promise of carbon labelling. Nat Clim Chang. 2022;12:132-140.