The Environmental Cost of your Food Shopping

As research surrounding the disastrous impact of intensive animal agriculture strengthens, food manufacturers (and retailers) are scampering to establish themselves as green producers and cut energy costs. Today, even a quick stroll down the meticulously decked aisles of the supermarket allows us to distinguish organically grown produce from that which has borne the brunt of agrochemicals and antibiotics, given how boldly companies extol the virtue on their packaging.

But consumers have little to no information on the greenhouse gases emitted during the process of production or the journey a particular food product might have traversed before sitting-pretty on the supermarket shelf. 

Enter, Quorn. The UK-based meat-substitute product company is set to become the first major food brand to introduce carbon labeling on its products.

The data has been certified by Carbon Trust, a not-for-profit, which collaborates with businesses and the public sector to achieve a sustainable and low carbon economy.

Image credit Quorn

A product’s carbon or water footprint indicates the total sum of greenhouse gas emissions produced or the water used in its life-cycle. Several factors play a role in determining the carbon footprint of a product – production method (organic or chemical), transportation (air freight, sea freight or local), processing method (fresh or deep-frozen), among others. 

A carbon label, then, allows shoppers to choose products with the smallest carbon footprints, compare locally produced foods and imported foods, industrially farmed with organic products, and so on. 

With increasing awareness around issues of sustainability, shoppers are constantly looking for information that will empower them to make eco-friendly choices about what to include in their cart. The carbon footprint labeling system aims to leverage the purchasing power of this segment to curtail the environmental impact of our shopping.

A research carried out by Carbon Trust last year corroborates this. Two-thirds of consumers in the USA, UK, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Canada, are now committed to reducing their carbon footprint and support the idea of carbon labeling. 

Labels such as the Energy Star in the US and the Nordic Swan Label have nudged businesses to calculate the environmental impact of their goods and have been known to favorably change consumer behavior. 

So, if businesses are keen to clinch the much-coveted sustainability tag and consumers seem ready to alter their choices, where’s the glitch? 

The problem, it seems, is logistical.

The concept of including a carbon footprint figure on food products isn’t new. The first murmurs regarding the summing up of emissions of food products surfaced over a decade ago. At the time, retail giant Tesco had pledged to catalog carbon labels for its 70,000 products. However, a few years after promising “a revolution in green consumption,” Tesco ditched its plans citing the sheer workload involved and the failure of other supermarkets to follow its lead as reasons. 

Tesco’s inability to live up to its claim reveals a very real challenge before big corporates in the food industry.

But as concerns regarding environmentally conscious manufacturing processes, responsible farming practices, use of plastic in packaging and overproduction of goods increasingly affect consumer choices, the onus of taking genuine steps toward sustainability instead of green-washing will fall on the producers. Those with the muscle to lead the way must do their bit. 

Following the Slow Food mentality of supporting small-scale farmers, regenerative farming practices, and responsibly raised animals helps us reduce our carbon footprint, while fighting with our forks for a good, clean, fair food system.


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