Tackling greenwashing: BEUC urges ban on “harmful” carbon-neutral food claims
10 Mar 2023 --- Misleading “carbon neutral” claims are proliferating across several F&B sectors and are confusing consumers, according to a snapshot of examples published by consumer groups from ten countries. The European consumer organization BEUC is calling on the EU to ban the use of so-called carbon-neutral claims for food and drink items, while both the European Commission (EC) and Parliament are also due to tackle greenwashing in the weeks ahead.
“Carbon neutral,” “CO2 neutral,” “carbon positive,” “carbon neutral certified” and the likes are now a common sight on supermarket shelves, as shown in BEUC’s snapshot. Examples range from processed pork products to bananas transported globally.
Speaking to FoodIngredientsFirst, Emma Calvert, BEUC’s senior food policy expert, says that consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the climate impact their food purchases can have and the majority are willing to change their dietary habits toward more sustainable choices.
“This hasn’t gone unnoticed by the food industry who have responded by labeling their products with green claims, including ones describing their products as carbon neutral,” she details.
“When a Swedish court delivered its verdict earlier this year banning a carbon neutral claim from a dairy company, it acknowledged that these environmental claims have ‘significant commercial value.’ So it’s no surprise that consumers see many more green claims on the supermarket shelves.”
“Unfortunately, these misleading claims are seen very positively by consumers who are often in the dark about the offsetting carbon activities behind them.”
Research conducted by the German consumer organization Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband found that “CO2 neutral” and “climate neutral” claims are compelling claims and those with the most substantial impact on positive consumer perception of the climate-friendliness of a food product.
“At the same time, while most consumers felt they understood the claim, just 8% of consumers objectively understood that the claim did not mean that no greenhouse gas (GHG) had been emitted,” explains Calvert.
“It is important that the food industry stop using these misleading claims on their food and drink products. Scientifically, no individual product can be carbon neutral. It also risks creating confusion and distrust among shoppers who can feel deceived when they discover that a food or drink’s ‘carbon neutrality’ is derived from carbon offsets.”
Participants in a UK study felt misled when they found that companies were not directly reducing their carbon emissions but were relying on carbon offsets to use the claim, Calvert tells us.
Nothing more than a “smoke screen”
According to Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, “there is no such thing as a ‘CO2 neutral’ banana or plastic water bottle.”
“Carbon neutral claims are greenwashing, pure and simple. It’s a smoke screen giving the impression companies are taking serious immediate action on their climate impact. “They are delaying action for many years by ‘compensating’ their carbon emissions instead,” she insists.
“Planting trees which will take decades to grow is far easier and cheaper, yet significantly less effective, than cutting emissions from their current climate-harmful activities.”
“Green marketing messages such as ‘carbon neutral,’ ‘CO2 neutral’, or ‘carbon positive’ are doing more harm than good,” Goyens comments.
“For climate-damaging meat or dairy products, such positive-sounding claims are bound to encourage a status quo in consumption habits. This is utterly counterproductive at a time of climate emergency when consumers are hungry for reliable and meaningful information to help them adopt more environmentally friendly diets. The EU must seize the legislative opportunities in the coming weeks to weed out carbon-neutral claims from the market.”
Will an outright ban be on the way?
There have been a string of recent events relating to industry and climate labeling. However, there is little regulation in the space, allowing companies and brands to make claims that aren’t backed by evidence.
Current rules only allow authorities or courts to intervene once the damage is done and consumers have been misled. Consumers should not be exposed to such deceptive practices, warns BEUC, who is calling for an “outright ban of carbon-neutral claims.”
Belgium-based BEUC believes these claims are “scientifically inaccurate,” as all food and drink production will always necessitate carbon emissions.
They highlight that carbon offsetting, which underpins most such claims, provides no guarantees for “locking in” carbon for the future.
“These claims mislead consumers, giving the false impression that the products are a good choice for the climate,” states BEUC.
Meanwhile, they believe that the handling of complaints by national authorities is so slow that the harm of climate greenwashing is already done by the time it is taken seriously.
And finally, such claims can deter consumers from changing their diet (e.g., eating more plant-based food), which could be far more beneficial for the climate overall.
“Banning carbon-neutral claims on food products will eliminate some confusion among consumers who are trying to do the right thing for the climate but are being misled by greenwashing on their food labels,” asserts Calvert.
The climate impact of foods in the spotlight
Earlier this week, FoodIngredientsFirst reported that emissions from the food system are expected to drive the world past 1.5C of global heating, underscoring the need to tackle further the consumption and production of high-methane foods like dairy and meat.
However, in contrast, sustainability factors increasingly influence the purchasing behavior of European consumers, according to a recent study published by crop nutrition company Yara International via IPSOS. It revealed that consumers are willing to pay more for greener products and want producers to provide better climate-related on-label packaging.
A related study in the US found that when climate impact labeling is present on food, consumers will tend to choose the more sustainable option. Oxford University also published a study on the impact of eco-labels.
What’s in a name?
A myriad of so-called eco-labels are being rolled out across various F&B products. Still, with no gold standard or strict rules governing precisely what the logos mean and the methodology behind them, concerns are growing that they will need to be clarified for consumers and ultimately be counterproductive.
Unlike nutrition labels, there is no common or mandated methodology for CO2 labeling. Until standardization and a mandate become a reality, more food businesses and brands will likely launch their versions of green or eco-labels, all claiming to help consumers better understand the carbon footprint of products. But do they help, or do they hinder? With no unified methodology, there is a mixed bag of opinions on their current role.
We reported that IFOAM Organics Europe was taking legal action before the Paris Court of Justice to defend the integrity and reliability of green labeling on food products.
Recent research also uncovered consumer expectations around eco-label certifications linked to seafood consumption. The results needed to be clearer in understanding precisely what the eco-label means.
Meanwhile, last month, Oatly became the latest brand to jump on the bandwagon of eco-labels, introducing “climate footprint labels” for select Oatly products in North America, starting with the brand’s newly reformulated line of Oatgurts – a range of non-dairy yogurt alternatives.
By Elizabeth Green
This feature is provided by NutritionInsight’s sister website, FoodIngredientsFirst.
To contact our editorial team please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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