Labelling the carbon footprint of food and consumer goods

October 22, 2020

Amidst the growing awareness of climate change with both businesses and consumers, an exciting development has been the focus on the carbon footprint of food and consumer goods. This has in part led to the resurgence of ‘carbon labelling’. Momentum seems to be growing too, with more and more companies making commitments to roll out some type of carbon (CO2) labelling in 2021/22.

The issue has been increasingly discussed at a government level across Europe. The Danish government was already discussing this in 2018 and on 14th September 2020, the German Federal Parliament held a debate on food CO2 labels. As a result, it is likely some form of mandatory labelling will see life in the coming years.

At ClimatePartner, we have been thinking about this issue for over a decade and here are some considerations for politicians, citizens and companies alike.

System boundaries

Most product carbon footprints are calculated from cradle-to-gate, meaning this includes the production of raw materials all the way to the point this is sold to retailers. This however ignores the carbon footprint of:

  • The transport between the food manufacturer and the retailer, which with heavy packaging such as glass can be substantial
  • Emissions emitted at the end-of-life phase, which for packaging or products such as coffee (spent coffee ground) can be significant

Implementing a complete cradle-to-grave analysis may not be feasible due to the complexity of calculating the use phase (e.g. storing the food in the fridge or freezer, different cooking methods etc.). In the case of food, this is overly reliant on assumptions and the average is likely to be meaningless due to the variance resulting from different consumer choices. However, the processes outlined above, in our opinion, should be included for completeness.

At ClimatePartner, we prefer to take a holistic and inclusive approach by including both phases as these can be directly influenced by those who make and retail products.

This also adds complexity to labelling regional products that are distributed across a country or further afield.

To illustrate this, if a pint of milk produced in Devon is consumed locally, it has a much lower CO2 footprint than if the milk is consumed in Manchester. This is especially true if it travels 300 miles in a glass container, as due to its weight it will most likely be a material category in the overall footprint. This makes CO2 labelling on physical products potentially misleading as the footprint will differ greatly depending on where it is retailed.


Considering the above, a simple CO2 number on a product’s packaging is not particularly helpful for consumers to compare the data on a like-for-like basis, unless a specific methodology and standard is mandated.

While we wait for legislation on the topic and where this can be very useful however, is in a restaurant setting where all the meals and products have been measured with the exact same methodology and boundaries. Here comparability is possible, and this can help influence consumer choice positively.

Meaningful information

Our experience shows that absolute CO2 numbers often mean very little to the average consumer and this is also only the first step in the triad of measure, reduce and offset.

‘Sustainable alternatives’ have a footprint of their own. Companies also have a responsibility to convey this and take responsibility for their own impact.

We therefore believe that full transparency is crucial: what is a company doing to reduce its products’ footprint, how this has changed over time and have they offset unavoidable emissions? Product CO2 labelling needs to be clear, holistic, and transparent.

Sometimes, small steps can have a great impact. For instance, if a company opts for low-emission cardboard, the emissions relating to packaging can be reduced by up to 80%. Additionally, a mineral water brand who moves to 100% renewable energy and 100% recycled packaging can reduce the products’ emissions by up to 44%.

Effectiveness & responsibility

We contend that although consumers have a role to play, it is up to retailers and brands to make significant progress today. This means urgently reducing emissions and offsetting the unavoidable. A label which provides transparency on this puts more responsibility on companies to make the change required. A label that offers transparency combined with some form of ‘choice editing’ by retailers, in other words removing or limiting unsustainable options from shelves, is likely to be more effective in the timeframe that is required.


At ClimatePartner we have experience in CO2 labelling for a wide variety of food products, from fruit and vegetables to dairy products, bread to meat, processed foods to beverages.

The feedback from our clients and their consumers is clear: the unambiguous climate-neutral label is preferred. Especially when accompanied with transparent information on the total amount of carbon emitted for that product range, information on reduction efforts, as well as the offsetting of unavoidable emissions and details on the offset projects supported (which has its individual ID tracking number).

Should CO2 labelling become mandatory for food products, such transparency and clarity would be desirable.