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Sustain / Labelling for sustainability / Updates

Labelling for sustainability update 2007

Autumn 2007

Sustainability labelling
There was a very positive June members meeting and discussion focused on the issues raised in two papers about sustainability scoring and labelling (pictorial sustainability labelling paper, download 645Kb pdf); (discussion paper, download 95Kb pdf).

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is working with the Carbon Trust and, now, with the British Standards Institute (BSI) to develop a consistent and comparable approach to measuring greenhouse gases ‘embodied’ in products and services, including in food - known as PAS-2050. Although Sustain's deputy chair Mike Rayner had been involved in early meetings, disappointingly Sustain has not been included on the main steering group. However, Defra has reassured us that we will be involved at a later stage, certainly in any consultation and possibly also in a specialist sub-group on food, if one is established.

The Co-op and sustainability labelling
Sustain has been meeting with the Co-op to discuss how their Responsible Retail Advisory Panel (RRAP) might support the development of a sustainability scoring and labelling system. In the longer term we may be able to:

  • Undertake real scoring (and possibly labelling) of a small number of Co-op products;
  • Use this experience to increase the pressure on government to support further development of the system, so it could form the basis of universal sustainability assessment for food.

House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee
The House of Common Environmental Audit Committee established a Sub-Committee to run an Inquiry into environmental labelling. Based on our work to date (such as our submission to the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in 2004 - download 156Kb pdf), and with the invaluable research help of Leon Ballin, currently studying for a Masters in Food Policy at City University, Sustain submitted evidence (download 260Kb pdf) before the 5 October deadline.

Summer 2007

Carbon labelling
Following our letter to then minister David Miliband, Sustain coordinator Jeanette Longfield and deputy coordinator Kath Dalmeny met with Defra officials at the beginning of May to discuss “green” labelling for food, including the new carbon labeling scheme launched by the Carbon Trust. This is already appearing on labels of Walkers Crisps; with the methodology also adopted by Innocent for smoothies (not yet appearing on the label, but shown on the website). We expressed a number of concerns, including:

  • The methodology for carbon assessment had not been issued for public consultation. Several attempts to contact the Carbon Trust resulted finally in us being told that further development was being considered by an expert committee.
  • A narrow focus on carbon would leave out several major greenhouse gases associated with the food system (methane, nitrous oxides and several refrigerants – all with high global warming potential, for example).
  • It seemed premature for a consumer label to be released when it was not yet clear how consumers could or should use this information.
  • Other important sustainability considerations would be ignored, such as water use, fair trade, animal welfare, etc., which could lead to detrimental choices.

The Carbon Trust has since announced that they will be working with the British Standards Institute to co-sponsor the development of a Publicly Available Specification (PAS), which will be “the agreed measurement of the embodied carbon in products and services”. Sustain's deputy chair of the board of trustees, Mike Rayner, has also been involved in meetings hosted by the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, with the Carbon Trust, Defra and others to explore the similarities and differences between developing a nutrition scoring and labelling system and one for greenhouse gases, and what can be learned from these processes for developing a more comprehensive approach to sustainability scoring and labelling.

BSI standard on sustainable event management
In May, the British Standards Institute issued a consultation on a draft Sustainable Event Management standard (BS 8901:2007), which unfortunately made next to no reference to food or catering. Kath had previously met with BSI representatives, to encourage them to consider developing sustainability standards for food, so put together a consultation response (download 260Kb pdf) expressing our concern at the lack of reference to food, and set out the broad range of sustainable food issues that we believe should be considered by the BSI.

BSI is now setting up a subcommittee under their main technical committee, SDS/1 Sustainable Development, to cover farming and food. In response to our comments on the draft sustainable event management standard, BSI says that their plan is to address many of the issues we raised under new standards and Kath has been invited to join this subcommittee. Kath’s participation is conditional on a number of issues, in particular, this being public-interest process open to full consultation with our members and others.

Food labelling in the media
Kath has also contributed articles on carbon labelling to the Food Ethics Council journal, Food Magazine and several trade magazines. She has also taken part in an industry review of health claims and marketing endorsements by health charities, drawing on her report Cause or Compromise? (download 1.5Mb file) A survey into marketing partnerships between food companies and health charities or medical associations, published in 2002 by the Food Commission.

Spring 2007

Sustainability labelling
A paper has been drafted by Sustain's deputy coordinator Kath Dalmeny exploring options for visual representations of multiple sustainability factors, to achieve sustainability labelling of food products (download the paper below). It has continued to be updated and amended as developments in this area rapidly accumulate. Partly because of the speed of developments – with each new announcement seemingly surpassing the previous ones – a planned letter to David Miliband was not sent until prompted by a mention of “green” standards for food labelling in the papers for a Food Industry Sustainability Strategy (FISS) meeting.

Sustain's briefing paper on possible pictorial representations for sustainability labelling
Download 650kb PDF

Other labelling developments
Also relating to the sustainable labelling work outlined above, Kath has:

  • Contributed to a Fairtrade Foundation strategic review on 8 March;
  • Submitted a 33-page briefing paper on opportunities for sustainable food labelling, to inform policy development being coordinated by Claire Devereux for the Quality of Life Commission;
  • Met with representatives of the British Standards Institute who are exploring the idea of developing a sustainable food standard (although since food has been omitted from their new sustainable events management standard, to be issued for consultation in May 2007, we have some concerns about this);
  • Written several articles for newsletters and magazines on sustainability labelling issues, including for the Fresh Produce Journal;
  • Written several pages on food standards for a new food history micro-site on the British Library website, after meeting with one of their archivists.
  • Attended the Carbon Trust’s launch of the new carbon labelling scheme for consumer products.

Winter 2006-07

Defining and labelling sustainable food
Sustain is developing a project on ‘sustainability scoring’, to help assess and compare food products. Jeanette saw this approach applied to procurement work in Canada (see on her recent visit there. Creating a ‘traffic light’ approach to sustainable and unsustainable food could help, for example:

  • Retailers and food companies to reveal the externalities of their products on the label;
  • Food buyers in the public sector to demand high scores to qualify for contracts;
  • Sustainability to become a point of difference for competitive marketing, etc.

We are looking at scoring systems already in development (e.g. Unilever’s traffic light sustainability scorecard; the Duchy of Cornwall’s carbon labelling; and East Anglia Food Links’ Certificate of Provenance). We are planning to hold a seminar on the theme in February or March to discuss how this could be taken forward.

Traffic light labelling for food
Sustain's Children's Food Campaign has put itself in the middle of the debate on food labelling by publishing research data to support the Food Standards Agency’s traffic light labelling model. Our research found that almost half of adults cannot understand the percentages needed to understand the food industry’s alternative ‘per cent of GDA’ labels. We press-released this research the day before the Food and Drink Federation launched its GDA labelling scheme, and succeeded in dominating the coverage of the launch, much to the irritation of the food industry.

We continue to believe the industry's ‘per cent of GDA’ labelling system was designed only to give the appearance of action in the face of the current crisis in diet related ill-health and, at the same time, avoid using the red labels that might actually discourage people from eating junk food. We will also be writing to all MPs and British MEPs with a factsheet on food labelling that supports our research.

Sustain coordinator Jeanette Longfield also took the opportunity to highlight, again, the limitations of a voluntary approach to advertising and labelling when she was invited to speak at a joint UK/Netherlands Food Standards Agency event in the Netherlands, in November.

Labelling for sustainability: Sustain has worked on nutrition and sustainability labelling issues since the alliance was established in 1999.

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