The number of different environmental labels on food – covering issues such as carbon emissions and water use – has been growing. This has raised concerns that consumers may be confused or misled, generating interest in developing an ‘omni-label’ – a single environmental label that covers all the main environmental issues.

The new research examines whether this would be possible, exploring the strengths and weakness of the science behind labelling, reviewing 70 existing labelling schemes, and considering the practicalities of labelling for consumers and businesses.

The report found that:

  • Most existing environmental labels tell consumers how their food was produced, but they don’t measure the direct environmental impact of individual products. These ‘practice-based’ labels can play a valuable role in engaging shoppers with environmental issues, and are likely to remain more cost effective than ‘outcome-based’ omni-labels.
  • At present the science is not robust enough to develop a broad omni-label that accurately tells consumers the environmental impacts of specific food products.
  • Measuring environmental impacts is crucial to helping businesses become greener, but there are big technical challenges, and government should work with industry and green groups to help improve the science and agree common metrics. Importantly, such impact assessment can be valuable even if it’s only to improve practices within businesses and does not result in an outcome-based label.
  • Labelling is more effective at improving best practice than eliminating worst practice, so efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of food should not focus primarily on labelling.

Dr Tom MacMillan, executive director of the Food Ethics Council, says:

“This research is the largest review to date of environmental labelling on food products, and offers a set of priorities that should help make labelling clearer and more effective.

“But it’s also a wake-up call to anyone who thinks labelling alone will save the planet, as many of the technical and practical challenges we found won’t go away soon. It’s a fact of life that simplifying different environmental impacts clearly in one label is tricky, and shoppers will always have plenty else on their mind when they’re buying food.”

Notes to editors

  1. Effective approaches to environmental labelling of food products was commissioned by Defra and researched by the University of Hertfordshire, the Food Ethics Council and the Policy Studies Institute.
  2. The summary report, along with four appendices containing the details of the research, can be found on the DEFRA website: Report summary.
  3. The Food Ethics Council believes we can have a food system that is healthy and fair for people and the environment. We work with businesses, government and civil society to help find a way through the difficult issues surrounding food and farming.
  4. We have worked on meat and climate change, GM technology, water scarcity, supermarket power, food miles, environmental labelling, and much more.