Eco-labelling: the case for displaying the environmental impact of food

Finding the best way to inform customers how their food buying impacts the planet, presents a unique packaging design challenge.

The production, growth and manufacture of our food is one of the leading causes of climate change. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), worldwide agriculture produces more greenhouse gases then the entirety of the transportation sector.

With consumers more conscious of the environment coming out of the pandemic than they were going in, designing packaging that allows them to make an informed choice is good practice.

Later this year, Oxford University Museum of Natural History will host an exhibition that will in part address these ideas. Meat The Future will explore the impact growing and producing food has on the world, with one such area of focus being eco-labelling.

Organic labels are just one kind of eco-labelling.

What are eco-labels?

Eco-labels aren’t necessarily new. Products featuring “organic” or “pesticide-free” packaging have been around for decades. More recently, some brands have taken to labelling their “low-carbon” products too.

While these are a good start, Oxford University senior researcher in human behaviour Brian Cook says each of these labels only tends to tell one side of a much wider problem. “Carbon is just one part of the issue,” he says. “And well-meaning consumers who buy low-carbon labelled food might unwittingly find they’ve bought a product that instead impacts biodiversity loss or pollutes local water streams.”

Cook explains that finding environmentally friendly food products is doable, but that information is the key to the problem. Among the eco-labelling solutions he and his team have trialled, the one that uses four different “indicators” is perhaps the most effective, he says. The solution Cook mentions takes into account greenhouse gases, land use and biodiversity loss, water pollution and water use.

Navigating limited space

But while Cook says this system provides consumers with the information they need to make an informed choice – and indeed, that the system has worked well in the researchers’ experimental online supermarket – translating this much information to packaging found instore will be a challenge.

“There simply isn’t a lot of real estate available on packaging to put so much information,” he says. The way the team has navigated this problem so far is to use the four different indicators to “score” products, giving each one a rating from A to E. “We experimented with having all four indicators shown separately but it was too complicated for a real-world application,” he continues.

While creating space from nowhere isn’t an option, designers could significantly help the situation, says Thomas Matthews founding director Sophie Thomas. Thomas recalls starting her career in-house at The Body Shop, designing labels creatively “so we could fit everything we needed to put on”. Fitting all the information relating to the environment onto a steak or bag of pasta is a similar design challenge.

Finding “the line”

Thomas says finding “the line” for eco-labelling will be an important first step. “As a consumer, it’s easy to become overwhelmed with information when you walk into a supermarket and are met with a wall of green,” she says. “Of course, from an environmental perspective the more information the better, but there is a line past which things become confusing for shoppers.”

Ideas like Cook’s team’s A to E rating would help this information overload by providing a comparable system to which consumers could refer. He explains labelling different products in the same category could reduce food impact significantly.

“It’s not about telling people who want to eat beef that they need to switch to lentils to be environmentally friendly, but about showing that this E-rated steak has a more detrimental impact on the world than that A-rated steak,” Cook says.

Thomas says refill stations like that challenge the traditional idea of labelling and packaging.

How technology can “expand the limits of packaging”

A standardised way of identifying “A-rated” food on pack is one thing, but as Thomas mentions, labelling itself is undergoing a significant change right now – perhaps eco-labelling solutions could do well to acknowledge this. Thomas points to historical reasoning behind labelling, which she says was to “create desire at shelf point”.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t do much of my shopping instore anymore because of the pandemic,” she says. Add to this the encouragement of a more circular system, wherein consumers can bring any container to stores to fill up on items like rice, pasta and even cleaning products, and the relevance of packaging and labelling in its most traditional sense could very well be changing before our eyes.

In the case of eco-labelling, this is not necessarily a bad thing, she points out. Technology could be a great help for environmentally conscious shoppers now and in the future, Thomas says. “Using technology to create a hierarchy of information on pack is interesting to me,” she says. “QR codes for example could be a way for us to expand the limits of labelling, so that those who are interested can go deeper into the information they need.”

Contextualising food

The presentation of ecological information is one way designers can help, but Thomas also believes narrative building and storytelling can play a bigger role by combating the inherent “science and regulatory” language of eco-labels.

“If we can show consumers who makes their foods and what processes are involved, that’s more information on which to base their decisions”, she says. While this might not necessary be a nice experience, with things like meat and fish, contextualising food could go some way to helping the environment.

Eco-labelling, Thomas says, is a practice that can quite easily go hand in hand with other consciously-minded interventions. National standardised recycling capabilities, impact ratings for packaging itself (and not just the product contained within) are just two examples. In fact, she says to be truly effective these things should all be used in conjunction with each other.

“We all have a different moral and ethical compass so the ‘right’ product for someone might be different for others,” Thomas says. “But having all this information readily available and supported by other infrastructure to act according to our beliefs is the first step.”

Meat The Future will take place from 28 May 2021 to 16 January 2022. More information can be found on the project, put on in conjunction with the LEAP Project here and on Oxford University Museum of Natural History website

All images from Shutterstock.

Hide Comments (2)Show Comments (2)
  • Jill Hincks April 14, 2021 at 9:45 am

    The Link above to Oxford University Museum is not delivering any relevent content despite searching their site???

  • mike dempsey April 15, 2021 at 9:06 am

    Over two decades ago there was a lobby to have a universal traffic-light system displaying the salt, sugar and fat content on all processed foodstuffs. This still hasn’t been achieved with some companies adhering and others not. And even when they do, the design and calculation process can differ. The food industry is too entangled with lobbying politicians, no doubt with incentives to be sympathetic to their wants.

  • Post a comment

Latest articles