Unilever will test carbon footprint labels on up to two dozen of its products in North America or Europe, with the first offerings coming by the end of the year, The Independent reported. The company is still finalizing the details, but one option could be a traffic light-style label — similar to those currently being tested in Great Britain — that grades products based on their environmental friendliness. It could then be supplemented with more specific data online.
The CPG giant, which offers 75,000 products including Hellmann's mayonnaise and Ben & Jerry's ice cream, also plans to measure the carbon footprint of 30,000 of its products within the next six months. Unilever aims to put carbon footprint labels on its entire product roster during the next two to five years, the publication reported. The company also has suggested the idea of "carbon-neutral" or "carbon-friendly" aisles in supermarkets to help consumers find environmentally sound options.
- Unilever is the largest food company to test carbon footprint labels, which have also been tried out by plant-based brand Oatly and analog meat manufacturer Quorn. The move comes as consumer interest in the sustainability of food and beverages grows.
Unilever set a number of sustainability goals in 2010, including cutting food waste, increasing plant-based food sales and adding upcycled ingredients to its products.
Being one of the first major food companies to add carbon-footprint labeling will be a further boost to Unilever’s green halo. The carbon footprint pilot discussion also came the same day the company announced it will be a principal partner for the U.N.’s COP26 Climate Change conference.
As one of the largest CPG companies in the world, Unilever could motivate its competitors to follow suit. Mark Engel, global head of supply chain with Unilever, told The Independent the company hopes to "transform not only the actions of consumers, but of the thousands of businesses in our supply chain as well.”
Climate-conscious consumers are already prioritizing companies and brands that are transparent about their impact on the climate. As the publication noted, however, there is disagreement about whether a product's carbon footprint can be measured effectively, which factors are most important to consider, and the discrepancies among different carbon accounting standards.
Considering how cluttered food packaging already is, questions also loom regarding whether consumers will be able to identify the carbon-related labels and make sense of their claims. The lack of consistency around carbon measurement methodologies, coupled with a lack of regulation, could cause confusion or provide companies with a chance to massage their measurements.
Engel said speed was of the essence, and that Unilever intends to improve accuracy along the way. The company will use a combination of industrial averages taken from what he described as approved databases and existing carbon measures of its products, such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It believes its labels will be about 85% accurate.
"Ideally we want a world where a carbon footprint is as simple to measure as a calorie count, but it took 30 years to standardise calories and we don’t have 30 years to standardise carbon labels,” he said.
A growing number of brands have started to integrate carbon references into their branding and labeling. A few years ago, Oatly added the carbon dioxide footprint of its products on labels in the United Kingdom, and challenged other manufacturers to do the same. And in 2020, Quorn started putting carbon footprint data on 30 of its most popular meatless products sold online.
Carbon labeling helps Unilever put its climate-related efforts literally in front for consumers to see. As new food companies launch with sustainability as part of their brand identity, Big Food will need to find new ways to reach shoppers who may view them as part of the problem in order to stay competitive. An estimated two-thirds of consumers are more likely to buy products from companies that are working to reduce their climate impact, according to data from the Carbon Trust.