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Friday, July 19, 2024

Delivering greener groceries

It’s a huge year ahead for Sarah Bradbury and IGD who are busy working with stakeholders across the food industry to develop a universal approach to environmental labelling


“As environmental goals become more of a driving force for companies and society at large, the demand for a universal approach to food eco-labelling is becoming more urgent. Over the last two and a half years, IGD has stepped up to this challenge through its environmental labelling programme.

In 2021, several of our stakeholders raised concerns over the proliferation of different eco-labels available on the market, and the confusion this can cause to both shoppers and businesses.

We were asked to support these concerns across the whole supply chain, articulate the challenges to business and consumers, and set about developing a way forward for best practice in the future. As an organisation with a long history of being a trusted, impartial advisor, we can occupy this space – bringing the industry together, while casting our net widely in terms of research participants and feedback across the whole food value chain.

Developing recommendations for food environment labelling in the UK is an ambitious project. We knew from the outset that it would be important to regularly review our approaches and hold each other to high standards.

We committed to doing this work in regular consultation with our steering group, and more broadly with the large consult group. Both are made up of a remarkably diverse cross-section of professionals from charity, industry, academia and government, who were invited to offer feedback at each stage of the project. In total we received more than 350 pieces of feedback in response to email correspondence, workshops and one-to-one meetings.

Essentially, we had two objectives:

  • To help consumers make more sustainable purchasing decisions by providing more transparent information about the environmental impact of products.
  • To enable business decisions around supply chain efficiencies and sourcing by providing more transparent information about the environmental impact of supply chains.

It was huge step forward when the problem was officially recognised as part of the Government Food Strategy in 2022. In official language, the UK government stated its intention to ‘develop a mandatory methodology for those who want to make claims about the sustainability of their products or produce eco-labels’.

We set about creating a sound draft methodology for recommendations that would both encompass a rigorous approach to data and capture research on the perceptions of consumers, retailers, manufacturers and producers. In the process of developing the draft methodology we also consulted with technical experts Anthesis and the World Resources Institute, to make sure that our thinking was scientifically and operationally realisable for businesses.

We recommend consistent rules around verification, assurance and compliance are developed to make sure environmental impacts are calculated and presented to shoppers according to a widely agreed approach. This work will be constantly evolving as methods, and the availability of data, evolves. But at present, we recommend the fewest environmental impact categories that can accurately reflect the greatest environment impacts of the food system. As a result, the recommendations we have delivered to Defra include: water quality and use, land use and climate change, using a ‘life cycle’ assessment approach.

“Developing recommendations for food environment labelling in the UK is an ambitious project” – Sarah Bradbury

I am aware that our choices will not serve the priorities of everyone in the sector. It is impossible to please all. However, we agreed on eight principles to guide the work, as identified with the steering group, Anthesis and World Resources Institute. At the top of this list are a significant three, affirming that the recommendations should be: scalable, practical and good enough for a consistent and impactful approach.

We have a keen eye towards transitioning to more use of primary data in the future, when this is available. We are also highly aware that there is not currently a good, comprehensive way of measuring biodiversity. Nevertheless, we intend to further develop the approach as better metrics become available. As it stands, the team have produced comprehensive recommendations across use of data, the label design itself and governance.

The team also completed four phases of consumer research with the overall objective of exploring attitudes, understanding and preferences relating to environmental labelling to identify what an effective solution could look like. I found the consumer research aspect of this work particularly enlightening – how individuals in stores relate to different kinds of colour coding, grading and imagery, which will inform our work going forward.

Above: An example label from the IGD recommendations delivered to Defra

The research identified uncertainty, rather than confusion, and encouragingly there was limited confusion between nutritional labels and the environmental label. The consumer research revealed the following insight across three areas:

Appeal – There is a clear desire for an environmental label on food and grocery products. 81 percent say it is a good idea; 69 percent say it would help them make more environmentally friendly choices; 61 percent say it would help them decide what to buy.

Awareness – When prompted in a virtual reality setting, our research found that consumer awareness of the environmental label was low.

Understanding – Most accepted that the four chosen indicators of climate change, land use, water use and water quality represented the greatest environmental impact on the food system. However, some of the indicators are not that intuitive and most lack clarity of meaning.

While we expect that a more consistent approach to food environment labelling will result in shoppers making more sustainable choices, and businesses catering more to the needs of people and planet, we also know that a consumer communications campaign will be needed when any label is universally rolled out.

This year, the work on environment labelling continues as we further test our learnings and ask important questions of consumers. I am extremely proud of and excited by this landmark piece of work, which is a credit to the dedicated sustainability experts at IGD, as well as all the stakeholders who take valuable time to share their feedback with us.”

IGD is the Insight Partner for IFE 2024 and will be curating a day-long programme of content at the event on 26th March
Sarah Bradbury is the CEO of IGD





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