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The Problem with Sustainability Labelling | Opinion

How can we choose the most sustainable food and drinks on the market?

People across the world are becoming increasingly concerned about climate change and the environment. Many of us are also becoming more aware of how our choices, from transport to clothing, can impact the environment and wider society. However, food and drinks have some of the strongest effects, responsible for 20-30% of consumption impact on the environment.1 This includes many of the factors which make up sustainability, such as land use, water use, pollution, deforestation, and waste (although it’s important to note that animal welfare and fair pay for workers are also important factors for sustainability).2,3

Choosing a more sustainable diet

One way to reduce our environmental impact is to make better choices when buying and consuming our food and drink. For example, buying only as much food as needed to help reduce the amount of food wasted or eating less processed meat and more locally grown fruits and vegetables. While more people are adopting vegan and vegetarian diets, it might be more difficult for those who want to continue eating meat to understand the other choices they can make to be more sustainable. 

How can we make these sustainable choices? Recommendations from experts and governments can help, but it can be difficult to fully understand and use these recommendations in everyday life. What we need are practical guides that help us make sustainable decisions when buying products. One such way of providing this information would be through standardised sustainability labelling on food and drink, as this would allow us all to understand the sustainability impacts of different products at the point of purchase. 

The issue with sustainability labels

While several different environmental and sustainability labels already exist, these are typically accreditation schemes or labels which focus on only one aspect of sustainability. For example, a food’s carbon footprint tells us only about greenhouse gas emissions. This is a problem because there are many more factors which make up sustainability: indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations states that sustainable diets are “protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources”.

Read about MSC labels for sustainable wild-caught seafood.

Should there be different sustainability labels?

The answer may be one overarching label which considers many different aspects of sustainability. For example, it might show if there was a high level of animal welfare, if the workers used to produce the food were paid fairly, the level of water used, and the carbon footprint of a product. Putting these all on the pack for all to see would be a dramatic improvement compared to the general lack of information currently available on our food’s packaging. If someone was interested in a single aspect of sustainability - such as water use - they could then easily compare products and choose what they deem best. 

However, simply putting lots of information on the packaging may actually just cause even more confusion. If we were interested in sustainability and the environment as a whole, it would still be difficult to make a choice between different products with so many different factors to consider. One way to make this easier might be to create a consumer-friendly label which not only shows information relating to different parts of sustainability but also colour codes these parts to show which are good for that particular product and gives an overall ‘sustainability rating’ for the product - very similar to the the ‘traffic light’ nutrition labels which many of us are now used to seeing on our food. 

Such a sustainability label does not currently exist, but research is underway to understand what consumers might like to see and in what format. However, before a label can be developed, there are a number of other considerations and challenges. All of the information and metrics displayed on the label must be collected, it must be decided how these can be graded or rated, and to ensure that the label is trustworthy it must be accredited. Ultimately, though, such a label would not only help us, as consumers, but also lead to a greener and more sustainable planet.

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