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Unwrapping Eco-Labels: What Do They Really Mean?

You may be in the habit of checking the nutrition facts label on food products before putting them in your cart. Now, new eco-labels that signify the environmental impact of food are showing up on the front of packages and on restaurant menus.

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Panera, Chipotle and Just Salad were the first restaurants to include carbon emissions on menu items. The labels estimate a food’s environmental impact as a carbon equivalent reflecting the greenhouse gas emissions or CO2 spent in the entire journey of a food product, from growing to transportation to cooking or production. This environmental impact is measured in grams or kilograms of carbon.

Now there’s an entire movement to put climate change on the menu – from “climate positive” entrees to entire restaurants that are certified carbon-free.

In the supermarket, foods and beverages are embellished with on-package seals that declare “carbon neutral” or “climate neutral.”

Do Eco-Labels Matter?

I’ll breakdown many of the label claim definitions, but let’s start with the question if these eco-labels can make a difference. Two recent studies suggest they do have the potential to nudge consumers to more climate-responsible food choices.

One study conducted by researchers from Harvard and Johns Hopkins found that people may be less likely to choose red meat items from menus that were labeled “high climate impact.” The beef burger on the menu included the description: “This item is not environmentally sustainable. It has high greenhouse gas emissions and a high contribution to climate change.”

Researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K. found similar results in a study that used a traffic light system to rank eco-friendliness of menu items. The green traffic light symbol on a vegetarian burrito helped to significantly increase the likelihood that this more sustainable option was selected. Additionally, 90% of the study participants were supportive of eco-labels.

Keep in mind, both of these studies were online experiments exposing people to hypothetical menu items instead of ordering at an actual restaurant. Yet the researchers believe the findings suggest eco-labels have the potential to make a positive impact in real-world settings.

Seeking More Sustainable Choices

Increasingly people are eager to make changes to their behaviors to benefit the planet. Over three-quarters (78%) agree they want to buy from companies that help them achieve a more sustainable and socially responsible life, according to GreenPrint’s Business of Sustainability Index.

They’ll even pay more for sustainable products, yet 78% of those surveyed say that, despite their desire to support companies that align with their values, they don’t know how to identify environmentally friendly companies.

Here’s where eco-labels could help. Over two-thirds (68%) use labels to determine if a product is environmentally friendly, with that number jumping to 78% for Generation Z and Millennial consumers.

What Different Eco-Labels Mean

Some of the so-called green and ethical labels have been around for years, such as USDA Organic, Non-GMO Project Verified, Fair Trade Certified, Rainforest Alliance Certified and Certified Humane Raised & Handled.

Here’s a look at some of the newer eco-labels used in the food industry and what they mean.

Carbon Neutral Certified 

Carbon neutral or carbon free does not mean a food produces zero emissions. It refers instead to a company compensating for all of the carbon or greenhouse gases emitted during its production and delivery. That’s where third-party organizations come in, such as Carbonfund. that helps companies calculate, reduce and offset their carbon footprint with projects that remove an equal amount of carbon from the atmosphere.

Carbonfund’s Certified Carbonfree® products have “net zero” CO2 emissions, meaning brands measure and offset the carbon footprint of the products over their full lifecycle. This lifecycle focus is also called “cradle-to-grave,” which means the calculation includes the ingredient sourcing and packaging, product manufacturing, distribution, consumer use and eventual disposal.

Carbon Trust is another organization offering carbon neutral certification for products. The group has certified over 27,000 individual product footprints, and many display the label in more than 40 countries.

Climate Neutral Certified 

This label is certified by a nonprofit group called Climate Neutral that’s on a mission to make climate neutrality a priority for companies and individuals. Similar to Carbonfund, they work with companies to measure, reduce and offset greenhouse gas emissions with carbon credit investments that help to capture carbon – projects that include reforestation, mangrove rehabilitation, and landfill management.

More than 300 brands have been certified by Climate Neutral, including Zero Carbon Coffee, Numi Organic Tea, and Bud Light Next.

Regenerative Organic Certified 

Regenerative agriculture is often referred to as carbon farming because it restores soil biology, which pulls carbon out of the atmosphere. Regenerative organic agriculture is a collection of practices that focus on regenerating soil health and the entire farm ecosystem – from the animals to the workers. Developed by the nonprofit Regenerative Organic Alliance, this certification uses the USDA Certified Organic standard as a baseline and adds criteria for soil health, animal welfare and social fairness.

The alliance was founded by the Rodale Institute, Dr. Bronner’s and Patagonia. Other members include Compassion in World Farming, Fair World Project and the Textile Exchange. Although “regenerative agriculture” has become a popular buzzword, the term is not fully defined and the claim is not regulated.

Upcycled Certified 

Upcycled products are made with ingredients that would have otherwise been thrown out, such as the pulp created when fruits are turned into juice, the spent grain from the beer-making process or the cacao beans that are wasted when making chocolate. This new certification program was developed by the Upcycled Food Association, which has certified more than 200 food products and ingredients – representing 840 million pounds of food waste.

One third of all food produced in the world ends up wasted, which accounts for 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The Upcycled Certification on-package mark signifies that a specified amount of upcycled ingredients were used.

Upcycled certified products include ReGrained bread mixes, Pulp Pantry vegetable chips and Blue Stripes Urban Cacao chocolate bars and cacao water.

Certified B Corporations

While the Certified B Corporation label does not make any claim about a specific food, it does flag a company’s commitment to meet standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency on factors from supply chain practices and input materials to charitable giving and employee benefits. The certification is managed by B Lab, a nonprofit organization “transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities and the planet.”

The pledge serves as a legal framework for the company’s corporate structure, which is intended to help balance profit with purpose.

Carbon Confusion

Eco-labels have exploded in recent years, totaling 456 globally, according to the Ecolabel Index, a directory of eco-labels across 25 industry categories including food. But not everyone agrees this is a positive trend.

Matthew Hayek, an assistant professor in the department of environmental studies at New York University, believes the “climate neutral” or “climate positive” claims are confusing and misleading. Actually, these foods do not even exist, he says.

The trouble is that these claims rely on carbon offsets – or those projects that are attempting to compensate for a product’s own emissions. While carbon offsets can play a role, it is important to ensure that offset projects are transparent, verifiable and result in real, permanent and additional emissions reductions, he says.

Few of these labels give shoppers meaningful guidance in choosing environmentally superior products, he says. You may be tempted to choose an item with a “climate neutral” label because the item next to it does not make that claim. Yet, he says the non-labeled item could have a 10 times lower carbon footprint.

“If you are feeling confused, there’s probably someone trying to confuse you,” Hayek says.

What You Should Do

So what should you do? Rather than relying on eco-labels, which may be providing an undeserved green halo, eat more plants and waste less food, Hayek says. Reducing meat and wasting none of it will go a long way in reducing your own personal carbon footprint at home.

He also suggests paying attention to the label that really matters – the nutrition facts panel on the back of the package, which is federally-regulated, transparent and benefits from decades of hard science, all things that the current slate of climate labels lack.

Perhaps carbon is not the new calorie after all.

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Bernard Greenhall
Bernard Greenhall

Bernard is a sports and physical education expert with years of experience. He's passionate about promoting health and wellness through physical activity, and he's worked with athletes and non-athletes alike to help them achieve their fitness goals. Bernard holds a degree in Physical Education and is dedicated to staying up-to-date with the latest trends and research in his field.

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