Cultivating sustainable food systems through ‘ecolabels’

Simone van Nieuwkoop, with art by Samantha Hambleton

Considering today’s many challenges, ranging from climate change and pollution to hunger and food waste, consumers across the globe are becoming increasingly more concerned and aware of their environmental impacts. Specifically, with many products now classified as ‘organic’, ‘free-range’, and ‘hormone-free’ (just to name a few), it seems many of us are becoming much more mindful of our day-to-day food choices. With unsustainable mass production methods continuing to be the ‘norm’, however, our current food systems remain a serious threat both socioeconomically and environmentally. In fact, it has been found that the food sector alone contributes to around 20-30% of total global emissions. However, whether we realize it or not, we consumers have the potential to change this. In taking advantage of our buying power and spending habits, we can influence how our food systems operate by creating a higher demand for sustainable products. Accordingly, with this increased demand, producers will inevitably be pressured to avoid or abandon unsustainable practices altogether, therefore creating a more sustainable food market in the end. 

But what exactly makes food ‘sustainable’? According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), sustainable food is produced, processed, distributed, and disposed of in a way that protects ecosystems, conserves biodiversity, meets public health standards, and offers fair treatment to all involved in the production process. In other words, to be considered sustainable, production methods must satisfy the needs of both present and future generations whilst ensuring environmental health, economic profitability, and social equity.  

While it is clear that both producers and consumers have crucial roles in practicing sustainability, linking these two roles has proven to be quite a challenge. For many consumers, a general lack of transparency on the production end has caused much deception and confusion. In fact, some production companies have been found to purposely deceive buyers by falsely marketing their products as environmentally-friendly (a process known as ‘greenwashing’) and, for the most part, tend to go unnoticed doing so. With the emergence of ecolabels, however, progress toward increasing transparency and sustainability in food systems is steadily moving forward. 

Through ecolabels, buyers can choose products based on specific environmental criteria. For producers, these labels are a means of measuring performance and communicating the environmental credentials of a given product. Unlike other environmental labels, which are typically self-certified as sustainable by a given company, ecolabels are carefully reviewed by an impartial third-party and only awarded to a product if they meet certain environmental standardsThis effectively reduces greenwashing whilst also increasing consumer trust in identifying and choosing sustainable products.  

Although ecolabels can be used for a range of different products, including furniture, clothes, kitchen equipment, and gardening supplies, their use for food products has shown steady growth. In fact, there are currently 148 different eco-labels for food products across the globe. Products labeled ‘Fair Trade’, for instance, guarantee that workers receive fair wages and that land is cultivated sustainably during the process. Somewhat similarly, the Rainforest Alliance label certifies that a product comes from a farm that follows environmentally-friendly standards while offering fair treatment to workers. In addition, products that are ‘Animal Welfare Approved‘ guarantee that animals are raised outdoors using high-welfare farming methods. In guiding purchasing decisions in a transparent, non-misleading manner, ecolabels are essential tools for promoting long-term sustainability.  

Although ecolabelling shows that a product has been made sustainably, some argue that it has become too fragmented. In covering different dimensions of sustainability, many ecolabels fail to provide an ‘overall’ sustainability rating for a given product. For example, a product with an ‘Animal Welfare Approved’ label ensures that animals were not harmed in the production process; however, it does not reveal whether the workers involved received fair pay and treatment. In addition to this problem, there is also growing criticism that too many competing ecolabels may confuse buyers, leading them to accidentally buy unsustainable products.  

In attempt to address these issues, several environmental organizations are pushing for the creation of one ‘dominant’ eco-label. In fact, this autumn, a UK-based non-profit called Foundation Earth is planning to launch a new ‘sustainability score’ to help consumers check the overall sustainability level of a product before buying. Developed with Mondra, a sustainable food consultancyFoundation Earth uses a life-cycle assessment method in which the environmental and socioeconomic impacts of a product are assessed from farming all the way to transport. Given a score ranging from ‘A+’ to ‘G’, products can be easily compared against each other within the same category and across different ones as well. Featuring products from Sainsburys, Nestle, Marks & Spencer, and Costa Coffee, the organization is already experiencing success.  

A strong advocate of Foundation Earth, consumer food analyst Marjolein Hannsen stresses the importance of simplicity when it comes to food labelling. Given that environmental data is highly complex, she states that the emergence of a single-score system is key to achieving sustainability in food systems. If competing scoring systems persist (via the continuation of competing ecolabels), consumers will simply continue to struggle assessing differences between products. However, by incorporating all the different elements of sustainability and translating them into an easily digestible, standardized metric, organizations like Foundation Earth are ultimately making it easier for consumers to understand what products are truly sustainable.  

By bridging the gap between producers and consumers, ecolabels are certainly a step to cultivate sustainability in our current food systems. Although the shift toward one dominant ecolabel is only just beginning, food producers are becoming increasingly more pressured to meet high sustainability standards. With today’s consumers demanding greater transparency around both the environmental and socioeconomic impact of their food, producers need to reconsider their methods and assess their supply chains to be able to receive the highest sustainability scores for their products. Whether a single standardized ecolabel will emerge to a global scale is still yet to be seen; however, once producers and consumers are finally able to work effectively together, there is no doubt that sustainability can be achieved in our food systems.

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