Earth First

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.

Related articles

Most viewed

Earth First

How To Reduce Bread Waste

Marie Lödige

For many people, bread - in whatever form - is a staple in their diet. Bread comes in all shapes and…

Earth First

The Brazil Nut | How It’s Grown

Molly Melvin

At first glance, the Brazil nut seems little more than an oversized, overpriced nut you pass in the…

Human Stories

2023 is The International ‘Year of Millets’ | Here’s Why They Matter For Global Food Security

Sanket Jain

Indigenous millets are a nutritious and climate-resilient crop. But in India, their production is…

Human Stories

Fairtrade Certification | How Does Fairtrade Work?

Jane Alice Liu

In low-income regions, small-scale agriculture is the biggest source of income, job security and…

Earth First

6 Reasons Why We Should Care About What We Eat

Merel Van der Meer

Nowadays, it seems guaranteed that our supermarket shelves will always be filled with food and…

Earth First

Cashew Nuts | How It’s Made

Molly Melvin

Brought over from Brazil, nurtured in India and commercialised worldwide, the cashew nut has become…

Earth First

Has the “Mediterranean Diet” Ever Existed?

Silvia Lazzaris, Inés Oort Alonso

Many of us believe we understand what the Mediterranean diet entails, and perhaps some of us even…

Earth First

No Dig’ Gardening: A Quiet Revolution

Sarah Wyndham Lewis

It has long been thought that soil must be physically dug to create a finer texture, amalgamate…

Earth First

What Will We See in Farms of the Future?

Claudia Lee

With agriculture accounting for almost one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions, the impacts of…

Earth First

Rice | The Italian Way

Silvia Lazzaris

I do not love risotto. This has always been, for my Italian family, one of my most intriguing…

Human Stories

When Less is More: A Portrait of No-till Farming

Dr Caroline Wood

The Green Revolution in agriculture was powered by mechanisation, but our soils are now worn out…

Earth First

Are We Eating the ‘Right’ Seafood?

Moray Swanson

Over the past 50 years, our global demand for seafood has increased substantially. So why are we…

Keep updated with the latest news about your food with our newsletter

Follow Us