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Reducing the carbon footprint of food

John Newton of the Carbon Trust explains the value of certification in reducing the environmental impact of food products and building consumer trust.


Although many consumers try to make good environmental choices when they go shopping, they often do not have the time to research every decision before buying. This is particularly true as we approach the festive season, when the last thing consumers have time to think about is sustainability during the rush of Christmas shopping.

Fortunately some purchasing decisions are simpler than others, such as the option to buy a completely natural, locally grown Christmas tree versus an imported artificial one. The natural one is obviously better right?

Unfortunately, it is not that simple. The Carbon Trust carried out a study a few years ago, which showed that it depends how long you plan to use the artificial one and how you dispose of the natural one as to which has the lowest carbon footprint. If you are planning to keep using the same tree for more than 10 years, from a carbon perspective, the artificial tree would in fact be the better choice.

There are as many such environmental conundrums facing shoppers, particularly when it comes to choosing food. Because of the number of choices we have to make in a limited timescale, we are forced to make assumptions about environmental impacts. For example, do apples from Spain have a lower carbon footprint than apples from New Zealand? Intuitively it would seem so, but in order to know for certain you would need to ask a whole lot of questions from both producers, and you may find out that the opposite of your assumption is true.

Coupled to this, as consumers, we are often influenced by packaging that makes a product look environmentally friendly, or by suggestive claims made by food producers. So as consumers, how do we make informed and sound choices?

Do apples from Spain have a lower carbon footprint than apples from New Zealand?’

Food labelling

As a starting point, consumers need access to impartial facts about the environmental impacts of the products that they buy.

One solution is to have food producers provide environmental impact information in the form of product labels backed by independent certification, which informs consumers and drives better choices.

There are examples of food companies that have done just that. Quorn is a food producer with a vision ‘to make food that’s better for us and better for the planet’, and was also the first global meat-alternative brand to achieve third-party certification of its carbon footprint data.

Quorn initially gained certification from the Carbon Trust of its most popular product in 2012 and has been adding to its portfolio of certified products ever since. Quorn has significantly built much of its brand equity on its products’ environmental credentials and health benefits. The certified Quorn products carry the carbon label on pack, which communicates to their customers their commitment to show continuous reduction in their products’ carbon footprints year-on- year.


One of the historical constraints of enabling product specific environmental certification has been lack of data and the resource required to obtain it.

However, the once daunting task of looking at full-lifecycle carbon has been made easier by three progressive trends. The first is the advent of new technologies that automate data collection with greater precision and accuracy. The second is the greater availability of both specific and generic data, e.g. transport, packaging etc., which is now available from a powerful database of footprints that the Carbon Trust has collected over one and a half decades of carbon footprinting. Thirdly, the international methodologies for calculating embodied carbon have matured and simplified, allowing us to certify entire categories of similar products simultaneously, rather than calculating a separate footprint for each individual product.

These trends make it a lot simpler and less costly to communicate the environmental credentials of products, which helps to explain why carbon product footprinting and labelling is a resurging trend.

Carbon hotspots

Of course, it is not only about communication. The direct link between cost and carbon means that food producers can make savings to the bottom line by identifying and reducing carbon hotspots in their value chain.

Understanding the interactions between the different elements of the value chain provides insights that inform decision-making and lead to longer term savings through continuous improvement.

The Carbon Trust helped Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) and Teagasc (The National Agricultural Research & Farm Advisory Body) to explore and model the complicated carbon emissions associated with agriculture, to enable them to understand the resource competitiveness of Irish agriculture, specifically dairy, beef, poultry, pork and lamb.

By conducting sustainability audits, over 50,000 farm assessments have provided bespoke feedback to help farmers identify improvements that deliver financial and environmental improvements.

Sustainable development

Although climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the food industry, there are many other environmental impacts and resources to consider. Sustainability is a broad church as represented by seventeen UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

In a perfect world, all organisations would include all seventeen goals into their sustainable business strategies. In reality, a more pragmatic approach may be necessary, such as prioritising SDGs linked to externalities that are likely to have the greatest impact on their industry. This could be achieved by identifying which resources an organisation is able to manage, that drive those externalities. For this reason, Bord Bia has extended its assurance scheme from carbon measurement to develop a framework that captures farm performance in relation to other sustainability measures including water, waste, biodiversity and community engagement.

For the food industry, carbon, water and waste are good starting points. The links between climate, food, energy and water have been well articulated by UN Water, which asserts that the water-food-energy nexus is central to sustainable development.

Due to rising global population, rapid urbanisation, changing diets and economic growth, the demand for all three resources, i.e. water, food and energy, is increasing.

Another clear priority in the food sector is waste. According to WRAP, food waste from households, hospitality and food service, food manufacture, retail and wholesale is responsible for 20 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, which directly contribute to climate change and also results in 10 million tonnes of wasted food, 60% of which could have been avoided.

The more companies that certify their own organisations and their products, the more informed procurement choices become for both business and consumers’

Certification schemes

To address these issues, the Carbon Trust developed its Standard for Carbon, Water and Waste (the Triple Standard), to recognise organisations that take a best practice approach to measuring and managing these three environmental pillars of sustainability, and achieving real reductions year-on-year.

The Standard also provides frameworks to enhance sustainability and improve efficiency and resource management at the same time as cutting costs. ABP was the first food producer to achieve the Carbon Trust ‘Triple’ Standard for Carbon, Water and Waste, which was driven by ABP Food Group’s ‘Doing More with Less’ sustainability strategy.

This initiated a number of ambitious targets to be achieved by 2020 with a view to substantially reducing ABP Food Group’s environmental footprint. The Carbon Trust Triple Standard enabled ABP to demonstrate its leadership credentials through achieving significant ongoing reductions in its own environmental impact.

In a similar way, the Carbon Trust developed the Green Kitchen Standard in conjunction with the Soil Association. The certification is designed to endorse best practice in food provenance and environmental management in a catering outlet. It introduces the ‘balanced scorecard’ tool for public food procurement as well as best practice in carbon, water and waste. This certification is used to help public sector procurers identify best practice as well as responsible environmental management when choosing caterers.


The direction of travel for environmental certification is to continue to incorporate more elements of sustainability. Further, with the aid of technology leading to greater data availability and the maturing of certification methodologies, sustainability is becoming easier over time for food producers to achieve. The more companies that certify their own organisations and their products, the more informed procurement choices become for both business and consumers. It would therefore be tempting to think that the problem is solved.

However this would be a misrepresentation of the situation. Many food producers have not yet started on this journey and one of the reasons given for inertia is that ‘our customers don’t ask for it’.

While this was historically true, it is less true today. As the urgency to address climate change through direct experience increases, the more important independent, impartial and factual information becomes.

Companies that are certifying are directly benefiting from lower costs in their value chains and are also already tapping into niche markets. As those niche markets are likely to become more mainstream, they are well placed to lead this sector in future.

John Newton, Associate Director, The Carbon Trust, Certification team

4th Floor, Dorset House, 27-45 Stamford Street, London, SE1 9NT, UK

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