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  • Anya Doherty

The Informed Consumer

Founder of Foodsteps, Anya Doherty, discusses the role that carbon labelling could play in making our food systems more sustainable, and whether the ‘informed consumer’ is an answer to the environmental crisis.

Despite the on-going challenges that Covid-19 poses for many in the food industry, sustainability is taking centre stage in the sector’s recovery agenda. From farming, to global supply chains, to consumer choices at supermarkets, questions are being asked about how and where we can change practices for the better. And for a good reason - food accounts for between a quarter and a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon labelling of food items is one strategy that has sparked interest from sustainability experts and food companies alike. Could you confidently choose the “greener” option between avocado toast and scrambled eggs? It’s not as straightforward as you might think, as it depends on factors such as where and how ingredients are grown, transported, processed and packaged, and even the time of year. Carbon labelling therefore aims to give power to consumers to make more sustainable choices by clearly showing the impacts of food at the point of purchase.

Could you confidently choose the “greener” option between avocado toast and scrambled eggs?

But is carbon labelling a smart solution to the problem, or merely one that shifts responsibility onto individuals rather than companies or governments? How does the public feel about carbon labels? And do carbon labels actually make a difference to the sustainability of food purchased, or are there more effective strategies?

In this blog, we take a deeper dive into these questions, and explore the practical feasibility of carbon labelling food products. Given the significant impact that the food system has on the planet, we think these questions are well worth addressing.

A Brief History of Carbon Labelling

Before addressing the effectiveness of carbon labelling, it’s worth briefly looking at its history. Carbon labelling is by no means a new concept. In 2007, Tesco pledged to label the carbon footprint of all 70,000 of its products – this was abandoned five years later. Data limitations caused the scheme to be short-lived, and the failure of other retailers to follow suit meant it was lacking in “critical mass”.

A lot has changed since then. Pioneering food companies like Quorn and Oatly have taken it upon themselves to showcase their carbon footprint on packaging, and growing demand from consumers for sustainability and transparency has reignited interest in carbon labels.

In fact, several mainstream reports now predict that the carbon labelling of food will soon become the new norm. The Behavioural Insights Team lists eco-labels in their top 12 solutions to promoting sustainable diets, meanwhile the BBC highlights the need for better labelling on food in their top solutions to climate change.

Does Carbon Labelling Work?

Perhaps the most important question is whether carbon labels actually work. Do they result in consumers purchasing lower impact food items, and how do carbon labels affect people’s feelings about their choice of food?

Importantly, a 2019 research paper showed that people consistently tend to underestimate the carbon footprint of their food choices, and that labelling acts to reduce consumer misperceptions. This suggests there is a problem worth solving, and that labelling might be an effective strategy.

Do they result in consumers purchasing lower impact food items, and how do carbon labels affect people’s feelings about their choice of food?

A second study at a University cafeteria showed that carbon labelling decreased the carbon footprint of food sold by 3.6%, while the University of Sheffield recently released data suggesting that their ‘Low Impact’ label on food reduced the sale of high impact items. Together, these studies show (at least in an experimental context) that labels have an effect on people’s food choices, though their ability to reduce food impacts might be quite modeStudies like these are limited in number, meaning more work is needed to understand the effects of carbon labelling, particularly the longer term implications. Our team contributed to a carbon labelling study at the University of Cambridge that looked further into consumer attitudes and feelings towards labelling. Results will be released soon, so stay tuned!

Challenges to Carbon Labelling

As proven by Tesco - a supermarket giant - mass carbon labelling isn’t without its challenges. While research continues to grow, information surrounding food systems remains difficult to obtain, and presents a persistent barrier to accurate footprinting. How can we create a standard measure of impact if food providers have access to vastly different levels of data?

Carbon labelling also presents a moral dilemma. Is it really right to define foods as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, particularly when food insecurity and food poverty continue to pose such a threat to disadvantaged groups. Paying a premium for sustainable food is outside the means of many households. Moreover, it could create confusion around nutrition - should an ingredient with a high nutritional value be labelled as ‘bad’?

Did you know that the average carbon footprint of beef imported from Brazil can be between two to three times higher than beef from a British farm?

Foodsteps Carbon Database

A further challenge is that food sustainability is highly nuanced – an item bought in one shop could have an entirely different impact to a similar ingredient purchased elsewhere. Clearly, a black and white approach to measuring sustainability is not appropriate. This also applies to the use of carbon footprinting as the sole measure of impact. While carbon footprints provide one indicator of a food’s impact, other sustainability issues like water use, deforestation, biodiversity, social and animal welfare are also important to consider.

However, while these challenges persist, they are certainly not insurmountable. And, given the critical state of the environmental crisis, our team thinks it is worth putting our time into overcoming these challenges.

Graphic: Knowing the carbon footprint of a plate can influence better sustainable choices.

The Foodsteps Carbon Label

Over the last few years, Foodsteps has continued working to resolve these challenges, most of which can be overcome with better research and data collection. Here, we want to share the four pillars of our carbon labelling strategy, as we launch the label with food and drinks companies:

(1) Complete Life Cycle Analysis: Standardising carbon footprint assessments is essential. We have established a standard measure of impact to ensure that consumers can compare the carbon footprint of food across different brands. This measure looks at greenhouse gas emissions all the way from ‘cradle-to-grave’ including farming, processing, packaging, storage, transportation, retail, cooking, and food waste.

(2) Balancing Health and Sustainability: We know it’s important to balance messages around food sustainability and nutrition. We score the sustainability of different food items using the EAT Lancet Report framework, which shows what a “planetary health diet” should look like. By eating mostly plant-based, with modest allowances for fish, meat and dairy, we can help to limit the impact of the food industry.

(3) Engage Consumers, Change Policy: Our theory of change is that informed consumers will help to push governments and companies towards the policy changes we urgently need. Even if labelling itself only has a modest effect on the sustainability of people’s choices, it’s the wider culture around disclosing the carbon footprint of products that the food industry needs. We think it’s vital that food companies and policy makers are ‘speaking the same language’ when it comes to environmental impacts.

(4) Beyond Carbon Footprint: While our label focuses on carbon footprint, we think it’s important to engage with the wider sustainability narrative of food. The QR code on our labels takes users to a web app, FoodStory, which dives into the biodiversity, water use, land use and social impact of the food.

Looking towards the Future

Carbon labelling is a trend set to sweep the food industry in the coming years, empowering businesses and consumers alike to make sustainable choices and push for change where it is desperately needed.

However, as explored in this article, it’s important to bear in mind some of the challenges associated with mass carbon labelling. A balance must be struck between the various demands on the food system, to ensure the emphasis on environmental impact labels does not come at the cost of nutrition, access to affordable food or the responsibility that businesses and governments have to lead the transition to sustainable food systems.

Access to sustainable goods is fundamental to the work of both Scoop UK and Foodsteps.

Scoop UK aims to ensure that sustainable living comes at no extra cost, while Foodsteps aims to improve access to information that will empower food businesses and consumers to make sustainable choices. We are proud therefore to announce an official partnership with Scoop UK with the aim of spreading our shared ethos that sustainable living must be made accessible to all. We look forward to announcing exciting collaboration plans later on this year.

Graphic: Inclusivity and accessibility is at the heart of a sustainable future.


This article is written by Anya Doherty. Anya’s research at the University of Cambridge Conservation Research Institute focussed on improving methods for calculating the carbon footprint and land use of catered meals. She has also worked for the University’s Catering Service and several college caterers to put her research into practice. Anya founded Foodsteps after completing her degree in Natural Sciences from Queens' College, Cambridge, where she received the Colin Butler Prize in Ecological Sciences.

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