Make Sure You Know Your Food’s True Carbon Footprint Before Putting It On the Label

 

The following is an article originally published on Food Logistics’ website on Jan. 11, 2022..

Why Reducing Your Food’s Environmental Impact Is so Critical

 

By Mark Heckman, EcoEngineers

 

Consumer health trends come and go, but what about consumer trends around sustainability and trends around the overall health of our climate?

With an increase in climate consciousness among consumers, people are more mindful of the personal and social impacts of their purchase decisions. An increase in sustainable, climate-friendly products follows this trend. Simply put, public awareness of our individual and collective carbon footprints is growing — and that growth shows no signs of stopping.

Food and beverage supply chain leaders must understand the science, facts, and anecdotal evidence of the worsening climate crisis to reduce their companies’ environmental impact and meet consumers’ expectations of sustainable business practices and products.

Recent Trends in Climate Change

There is more carbon in the air than ever before and an unprecedented volume of greenhouse gas emissions in the ozone layer. Temperatures are at levels that haven’t been seen in thousands of years and the frequency and severity of catastrophic weather events are increasing at alarming rates.

Although there is no way to attribute these climate catastrophes to any one person’s choices, new technologies are allowing consumers to better identify the sources of their carbon footprints. Almost nowhere is that footprint bigger than in the food and beverage industry. Our planet’s food systems comprise more than 33% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Food also creates around eight tons of emissions per household each year.

Consumers who have concerns about what they are eating can research that food with a few clicks on their smartphones. This allows them to make more informed purchase decisions, opting to buy products that reduce their personal environmental impact and give their loyalty to companies that are genuinely working to lessen the environmental impacts of climate change et reduce their carbon emissions.

Labels Matter in Food Supply Chains

There are a lot of positive signs that companies are beginning to take consumers’ demand for sustainability and the health of the climate seriously. Unilever, for example, recently committed to reporting how much greenhouse gas is produced in its supply chain.

(Shutterstock)

But there is certainly also greenwashing happening in the food and beverage industry — most commonly when phrases such as “natural,” “low carbon food,” and “non-GMO” are used without clear definitions. In other cases, companies will purchase other companies’ carbon credits and then claim they are lowering their own emissions. The basic idea behind this kind of offset is that activities like planting trees and restoring peatlands reduce atmospheric carbon. So, companies develop such projects, evaluate the level of carbon reduction, and then issue credits (usually equivalent to one metric ton of emissions). However, if reducing greenhouse gas emissions isn’t a foundational aspect of a company’s supply chain, then that company is not truly lowering its emissions.

As consumers are becoming more aware of these faulty sustainability efforts, they are being more selective. That’s why it’s so critical to know the true carbon emission information of all your products and processes. You can’t slap on a label that says “green” and expect consumers to trust that the product is actually sustainably made. To build legitimately sustainable products and processes, avoid greenwashing, and ensure the carbon emission information you include on your products is accurate for consumers, follow these steps:

  1. Educate yourself and your partners.

The best place to start is to educate yourself as much as possible. Understand the recent trends in climate change, for instance, and what other sustainable food manufacturers are doing to reduce their emissions. Additionally, stay abreast of important regulations in the industry, including how company statements should be validated and verified to avoid greenwashing.

It’s also important to help educate your supply chain partners. As you communicate how to reduce negative environmental impacts in the food manufacturing process, you become a better steward yourself.

  1. Perform a supply chain audit.

You need to look at your whole supply chain and the full life cycle of your product through a comprehensive, sustainable lens. If you are producing cereal, for example, you need to look at all the steps involved; examine the energy and all of the inputs that go into the process — from seed to distribution to spoon.

For food production to be considered sustainable, it must encompass three main components: It needs to be good for the environment, be economically sustainable, and be socially sustainable. If you take any one of those away, it’s not truly sustainable and you can’t label it as such. Once you understand the actual environmental impact of your products and processes, you can start to be honest with consumers about the steps you’re taking to reduce it.

  1. Get expert advice.

You can do all of this work on your own, but beginning with the end in mind and having an expert come in to offer another set of eyes is important. You likely aren’t an expert on sustainable supply chains, and you don’t want to make false or embellished statements that will negatively reflect back on your company and the industry. With something as critical as the health of our climate, expert involvement is key.

Unfortunately, there is no verifiable stamp or standard measurement that says a certain food is low carbon. So if you’re making claims that your product or process is sustainable, you have to be able to prove it with more than a “green” label. Consumers are more educated and discerning than ever, and they have more food choices than ever. To stay relevant, you must put sustainability first. Consumers — and the planet — will thank you.

 

Mark Heckman EcoEngineers

Mark Heckman

Mark Heckman is the Ethanol Services Manager and sustainable farm practices expert at EcoEngineers, a consulting and auditing firm that specializes in low-carbon fuels and decarbonization strategies. As a farmer in a family partnership of approximately 1,500 acres of corn and soybeans in West Liberty, Iowa, he is an agricultural leader with a focus on soil health and sustainable farming practices. He is a member of the Iowa Corn Growers Association and the Global Farmer Network. For more information about sustainable farm practices, low-carbon fuels, or EcoEngineers, contact Mark at mheckman@ecoengineers.us.