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How product carbon footprinting can help brands

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Labels stating the carbon footprint of products are appearing more frequently on our shelves. What is driving this trend and how can companies get on board?

Since a quarter of a century ago, when nutritional labels first started appearing on food and drink products, scanning packaging for calorie, fat, sugar and salt levels has become the norm for consumers.

Yet today, simply understanding the nutritional content of the products we consume is no longer enough. As environmental, social and governance factors become increasingly important to consumers, the demand for transparency around not only the contents but also the wider impact of food and drink products is rising.

Increasingly, food and drink manufacturers are opting to use carbon footprint labels as a way of communicating the environmental impacts of their products with consumers. 

Carbon footprint labels: A growing trend

A product’s carbon footprint refers to the total greenhouse gas emissions emitted throughout a single product’s life cycle. When calculating the carbon footprint of a product, two different approaches are commonly used. According to the Carbon Trust, the most frequently used approach by consumer goods companies is cradle-to-grave. 

This approach considers emissions released at every stage of the product life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials to the manufacture, distribution, and disposal of the product.

Since the launch of the first carbon footprint label in 2007, there has been a surge in popularity in both the use of and demand for such labels. 

“Currently, we are experience a strong growth in demand for our services, as well as a surge in popular demand of carbon claims on products,” said Paula Schmidsfelden, EU business development manager at The Carbon Trust.

The step-by-step process of carbon footprinting

For companies to manage resources, monitor supply chains and increase the circularity of products, it is important that they have a clear understanding of carbon product footprinting.

The first step in determining the carbon footprint of a product is analysing the total cradle-to-grave emissions of a product. Carrying out this analysis allows manufacturers to make sense of the data and put an effective management plan into place.

“A big part of management is reduction. This analysis can help companies to understand where they can implement levers that will have an impact in reducing costs and emissions,” Schmidsfelden said.

The next important step in carbon product footprinting is certification. Once the footprint has been accurately measured, it is necessary to ensure that it is comparable and in line with best practice. A number of standards are available to companies for this, including those from the Carbon Trust and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

To make claims which are credible and add to a company’s brand value, it is key that the results are independently verified by an autonomous third party or international body.   Only once these steps have been taken can a product be awarded with a carbon product footprint label.

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Carbon product footprinting generates multiple advantages

Achieving a carbon product footprint can offer various benefits to manufacturers, as well as the planet at large. As per the Paris Agreement, many governments and companies have set ambitious carbon reduction targets, to which carbon product footprinting can be a means of achieving.

Food manufacturers in particular are facing growing stakeholder pressure to decrease their environmental impact by minimising the amount of carbon their products generate.   Product statements represent strong claims for brands, which can influence stakeholders, from investors to NGOs to consumers, and offer benefits to the manufacturer vis-à-vis each of these groups. 

“Products within the food industry, particularly within Europe, are subject to tighter regulation and as such, stating the product criteria can help to heavily reduce risks … companies can mitigate the risk of potential negative publicity by always ensuring that claims are valid and genuine,” Schmidsfelden said. 

When it comes to consumers, research shows that they are more likely to think positively of a brand that can show that it is managing its carbon portfolio and are willing to pay a premium for carbon footprint labelled products.

More and more consumers are actively seeking labelled products, with over two thirds of consumers across all markets regarding carbon footprinting as a good idea, survey data from the Carbon Trust shows. Furthermore, over 50% of consumers say that they are likely to recommend labelled products, as opposed to non-labelled alternatives, to others. 

Transparent and confident communication is key

As consumers continue to play closer attention to their personal carbon footprint and those of the products they purchase, it is essential for companies to communicate claims clearly and accurately.

Quorn, a global meat alternative brand, was awarded a Product Carbon Footprint certificate for its Mince and Pieces products a decade ago. To do this, the company undertook a ‘farm to shop’ analysis of its top 30 bestselling products which, once certified by the Carbon Trust, was made available to all consumers and stakeholders.

Since June 2020, Quorn has added carbon footprint labels to products, communicating the data behind this extensively via packaging, social media, advertisements, and PR coverage. 

“The footprint label helps us to transparently, and confidently communicate sustainability initiatives to our partners and customers” said Louise Needham, sustainability manager at Quorn. 

More recently, other key industry players such as Danone and Nestlé for its Nespresso brand have pledged ambitious net-zero goals and revealed carbon neutral strategies for the coming years.

“Product footprinting and labelling is really enabling companies to implement impactful action within product supply chains within product value chains,” concludes Schmidsfelden.

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