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Move Over Nutrition Labels, Carbon Footprint Labels are Coming to a Snack Near You

Move Over Nutrition Labels, Carbon Footprint Labels are Coming to a Snack Near You

Carbon labeling on foods can help consumers to reach their goals of lowering their carbon footprint.

It’s been over 25 years since food packaging started displaying its nutritional contents. Since then, it has become second nature for many people to check the calorie, sugar, salt and fat content of food or drinks before buying them. But this isn’t enough for consumers anymore. There’s a rising demand for another type of food label as people become increasingly concerned about climate change and conscious of how they’re contributing to it.

Just Salad recently announced it will display the carbon footprint of every item on its online menu by Climate Week on September 21 this year, making it the first restaurant chain in the US to do so. It also has plans to publish the carbon labels on in-store menu boards.

Each product will list the total estimated greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of its ingredients, drawing on information from databases and research that provides calculations on the carbon emissions associated with hundreds of foods.

Related: Food Companies Sticking to Sustainability Initiatives in 2020

On a larger scale, food giant Unilever announced its plan to communicate the carbon footprint of every product it sells. In a company press release, Unilever stated, “To do this, we will set up a system for our suppliers to declare, on each invoice, the carbon footprint of the goods and services provided; and we will create partnerships with other businesses and organizations to standardize data collection, sharing and communication.”

The carbon lifecycle of food involves the use of fertilizers, manures that emit gases, land conversion that releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and livestock digestion, as well as transportation, packaging and food processing.

Vegan foods tend to have a lower carbon footprint than animal products. Enter Quorn, a leading meat substitute company that announced in January it would start carbon labeling on its products available in stores beginning June this year. The UK brand has been working with The Carbon Trust since 2012 to measure the carbon emissions of its operations, so it already had the necessary data.

Plant-based milk brand Oatly first analyzed the life cycle of its products in 2013 and decided to put their climate footprint on packaging five years later, after making improvements to its production in Sweden, including switching to using renewable energy. Now, it has carbon labels online and on some product packaging on European products, and is in the early stages of doing this in the US.

There’s hope that having carbon labels on food will help encourage change on an individual level and that it will help educate consumers to eat a more environmentally friendly diet. One study found that the labels showing environmental information improved the carbon footprint of a person’s diet by around five percent, compared to standard food labels.

Currently, food production contributes to 26 percent of global carbon emissions, and emissions on this scale are fundamentally changing natural ecosystems and reducing biodiversity and ecological resilience. But the hope is that carbon labeling will help consumers to realize their desire to lower their carbon footprint.