Thought-provoking comments on the use of “super labels” for communicating corporate sustainability efforts and metrics that arise from tools such as environmental life cycle assessment (E-LCA) were the basis of a presentation by Sean B. Cash, Ph.D., Bergstrom Foundation Professor in Global Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University. The presentation, “Facets of Sustainability: How Food Companies Can Measure and Communicate Progress to Consumers,” was given at Global Food Forums’ 2022 Clean Label Conference.
Cash noted significant gaps in diet sustainability research and policy translation. Most of the attention given to these topics so far is primarily focused on human health and environmental impacts. Equally important issues, such as economic sustainability (e.g., the rising cost of food) and social sustainability (labor and livelihoods), are often overlooked. At Tufts, Cash is an investigator in the LASTING (Leading A Sustainability Transition in Nutrition Globally) program that attempts to address this. Work from that project informed much of his talk.
Cash explains that many product labels rely on third-party certification to offer sustainability assurances. There are some 455 different ecolabels globally across 25 industries, with food and beverage being the most common products with such designations (see Ecolabel Index at https://www.ecolabelindex.com). Other qualities, such as paleo, kosher, non-GMO, vegan, organic, and nut- and dairy-free, also compete with eco-messaging for consumers’ attention.
“There are also many metrics like protein scorecards, GHG emissions, land use and carbon footprints,” stated Cash, “but these are often very complex and require highly motivated consumers to learn about the product attributes.”
Environmental and Social Life Cycle Assessments
E-LCA is a common tool that estimates a service or product’s impact on the environment across its life cycle. Several product-level databases are available (see https://www.circ4life.eu/slca), with some focusing on the substantial impacts of animal-based products on GHG emissions.
In helping consumers interpret this data, eco-impact labels can be pretty simple logos (reductionist) or very detailed. “Does having a lot of information on the label reassure the consumer that the company is being transparent,” asked Cash, “whereas a label with little information may not? Which will we see more of?”
Social LCA (S-LCA) is also of growing interest as a method to assess a product or service’s potential social impacts across its life cycle. It combines some of the modeling approaches of E-LCA with social science methods. The resulting metrics may, for example, take the form of the embedded risk of forced labor use in producing a product.
One of the exciting trends Cash predicts will shape the market for sustainable products is the normalization of plant-based proteins and hybrid protein blends of animal and plant. “What was once deemed as adulteration of meat is now enhancement,” he said. “This is a huge shift.”
Cash noted that hybrid products could be a positive way to lower environmental impact that does not require significant changes in consumption and may result in a larger percentage of consumers switching to less animal-based foods.
Pressures on food production will come from international climate goals, such as the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) with plans up to 2026. “I predict that, as we progress on energy production worldwide, there will be more focus on food manufacturers communicating in some way on labels showing what they are doing differently to address these challenges,” stated Cash.
Stock exchanges are proposing rules to enhance and standardize climate-related scores for investors. For example, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission recently released requirements for reporting, as investors care about these issues to safeguard their investments.
Online Food Labels
The nature of the label is changing with the increasing importance of online sales. Cash and colleagues have reported that the rapid growth in web-based grocery food purchasing has outpaced federal regulatory requirements on food product labels (Pomeranz, J, et al. Public Health Nutr. 2022/https://bit.ly/3bUbDXT).
This work also included scanning everyday products across nine large online grocery stores. The study found that required information (e.g., Nutrition Facts Panels, ingredient lists, common food allergens and percent juice in fruit drinks) was present for an average of only 36.5% across products and information categories, ranging from 11.4 % for potential allergens to 54.2 % for ingredients lists. In contrast, voluntary nutrition-related claims were often more prominently displayed (63.5 % across retailers and products).
“Online allows new methods to inform consumers on the description page of products that you wouldn’t necessarily see at retail,” observed Cash. For example, he pointed to an organic hot dog sold by Amazon. The web page’s text does not include the Nutrition Facts Panel required by law to appear (and is present) on the physical packaging. He also showed Amazon’s “Climate Pledge Friendly” highlighting of labels and products “using sustainability certifications to highlight products that support our [Amazon] commitment to help preserve the natural world.”
In short, the current practice in online retail fails to provide information that would otherwise be required in traditional environments, while simultaneously highlighting additional information that is not always readily available to in-store shoppers.
In conclusion, Cash indicated that although consumers are showing increased awareness for environmental sustainability when they make food choices, production and policy necessities will drive sustainability labeling as much as consumer interest. About competing messages on food products, Cash stressed that “labeling is outgrowing the label.”
“Facets of Sustainability: How Food Companies Can Measure and Communicate Progress to Consumers,” Sean B. Cash, Ph.D., Bergstrom Foundation Professor in Global Nutrition, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts University