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Fi Europe 2022

Using ecolabels as a tool for systemic change [Interview]

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“Ecolabels are a tool to inform consumers, not put the responsibility on them – but they can also trigger systemic change to transform the food industry,” says Cliona Howie, CEO of Foundation Earth, a non-profit developing a front-of-pack eco impact score.

Foundation Earth is developing a data-driven scoring system for food products, complete with front-of-pack logo, helping consumers make more sustainable choices in the supermarket and allowing the brands to identify how they can improve their supply chains.

The non-profit organisation, which is jointly headquartered in Spain and the UK, prioritises high-quality data – as opposed to general industry averages – to score products by carrying out Life Cycle Assessments (LCA). This means its front-of-pack eco impact scores are as accurate as possible and empowers companies with the intelligence that allows for product design change and enables consumers to shop with increased confidence.

Cliona Howie will be speaking at this year’s Food Ingredients Europe in Paris, giving a presentation entitled ‘Building a more sustainable food industry through ecolabelling’. We caught up with her before the event to find out more about Foundation Earth’s work.

Foundation Earth’s first pilot launched in Autumn 2021 to test consumer response to front-of-pack environmental scores. Do you have any findings to share from this pilot?

“It’s been very exciting working with so many food producers and brands, joining them on their sustainability journey. Our findings are varied, but to tackle the root issue, we need better access to high quality data.

“One of the key challenges when assessing the environmental impact of food products is access to high quality data. This is difficult not only because of the time it takes to effectively map and engage a supply chain, but also because there is a lack of incentive to contribute to data transparency. Foundation Earth is focused on building incentives into the supply chain for increased transparency and more accurate product Life Cycle Assessment.

“Secondly, environmental impact assessments alone won’t cut it; citizens need labels on-pack. Putting labels on pack is the ultimate way to be transparent with consumers. That doesn’t mean putting the onus on them, but providing them with accurate, credible, and trustworthy information so they can make informed decisions. To stimulate changes in consumer behaviour, we must account for every stage of a product’s life cycle, transparently to avoid greenwashing.

“Thirdly, third-party, independent verification provides credibility to consumers. There is a lot of confusing information out there, and people who want to take action often find it hard to do so. How do you assess the environmental impact of a product well? Where is the data coming from and how accurate is it? Who is driving the score? This is why consumers demand that an independent organisation provides the trustworthy information shown on on-pack labelling.”

In your experience, manufacturers in which regions are most interested in using front-of-pack eco-labels on their products?

“We have seen a lot of interest to score food and drink products across the UK and Europe, where a large part of our activity is currently, but are also gaining traction all the way across the globe, with retailers and food manufacturers from North America and Australia reaching out to us for collaboration.”

There are a growing number of front-of-pack labels that measure a products’ sustainability. Do you welcome this diversity, or could it risk causing consumer confusion regarding different standards?

“One of Foundation Earth’s missions is to drive the pathway towards harmonisation for ecolabelling of food and drinks products. Many scoring schemes are indeed out there, and that means that a lot of intelligence has been created, that we can all leverage to build an optimum scoring system. But avoiding confusion with both consumers and businesses alike will be key, and we believe that a single system is the way to do this. Our drive for a harmonised approach would help set a standardised approach based on key principles that we can all agree on.

“It would be fantastic for the various schemes to come together, openly, and collaboratively to explore how to work more efficiently towards a sustainable food system. Time is of the essence and collaboration is key to finding real solutions.”

Some advocates of a sustainable food system argue that eco-labels unfairly put the onus on consumers to make sustainable choices, when in fact systemic change must come from higher up. In other words, companies should only be sourcing sustainable ingredients for their products. Do you agree?

“It is indeed important that companies take responsibility for the impacts of their value chains. Ecolabels provide consumers with the transparent information needed to make informed choices, yes, but what they mostly do is incentivise those companies to improve their production in the view of getting a better score.

“On top of that, when scores and labels are attributed after carrying out extensive Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) – which is the environmental impact assessment of a specific product – it generates key data and intelligence that those businesses can use to understand exactly where they might be going wrong – and make the necessary changes.

“Ecolabels are a tool to inform consumers, not put the responsibility on them. But their choices have a ripple effect that can then trigger the systemic change needed to transform the food industry.”

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