With customers increasingly looking to make more sustainable buying choices, communicating a product’s eco credentials is becoming a major consideration in packaging design.
This isn’t just in terms of whether the packaging can be recycled. Brands are now looking to demonstrate to customers the overall impact a product has on the environment from manufacture to end of life.
This isn’t a brand-new concept either. UK supermarket Tesco experimented with carbon labelling its products a decade ago but withdrew the scheme as customers found it confusing. Now it seems that on-pack sustainability information is going into the mainstream.
Who is leading the way in environmental impact labelling?
Swedish oat-based dairy alternative producer Oatly is one of several companies adding sustainability information to its packaging.
It displays the climate footprint (in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalents per kilogram of packaged food product) of many products in its range clearly on the front of the packaging. This means customers can see it without even having to pick up the product.
Alternative meat producer Quorn has also introduced carbon footprint data to its top selling products.
Meanwhile, Unilever – one of the world’s biggest consumer goods companies – has confirmed that it will add carbon labels to all 75,000 of its products. The roll-out is beginning with a pilot on select products in the US and Europe. The carbon labels will show the greenhouse gas emissions required to produce the product. Unilever expects that the on-packaging information will be supplemented by further details online which highlights the increasing need for packaging to be thought of as part of a wider ecosystem.
Independent beauty brand Cocokind has taken sustainability labelling even further on its packaging. The company’s labels take their cues from the nutrition labels on grocery products. A panel breaks down the carbon emissions connected to the product at each stage of its life from production to distribution. It also shows where a product was made, all the packaging elements and whether they can be recycled, and instructions on how to recycle. Customers can use their smartphone to scan a QR code to get more detail about the information provided.
The layout is clear and easy to follow using a column format and minimal text, so that customers can quickly scan it. This makes the information more accessible as it’s easier to understand.
The challenge of communicating environmental impact
One reason for the rise in carbon labelling is to help companies prove their sustainable credentials given that terms like ‘clean’ and ‘sustainable’ can easily be misused and products misrepresented to customers. As such, Quorn, Oatly and Cocokind have had their carbon claims verified by independent third parties, namely Carbon Trust, CarbonCloud and Carbon Calories.
A big challenge though is accurately calculating the carbon footprint of a product as a huge number of factors from production to storage to usage can impact this. This also means that it’s not consistent from one product to another, even if they’re made in the same place or next to each other on the supermarket shelf.
US salad chain Sweetgreen found that this was exactly the case when it audited its supply chain in order to cut emissions. Rather than relying on average footprint figures for different ingredients, it visited every supplier to precisely measure the actual carbon footprint.
While, at present, the company isn’t making this information available to customers via product labelling, it may be that other companies follow Sweetgreen’s approach in order to make their sustainable labelling as accurate as possible.
Standardised systems and approved methodology for calculating figures are likely to be implemented in the future to help customers accurately compare one brand’s product against another.
Unilever, L’Oreal, LVMH, Henkel and Natura & Co have already announced a collaborative project to develop an industry-wide scoring system to measure and display the environmental impact of a product.
Sustainability labelling isn’t just a nice-to-have. Customers are increasingly looking to make better buying decisions and are rewarding companies that help them do that.
Reportedly, salad chain Just Salad saw sales of its lowest carbon rated products jump 20% after adding carbon labels to its range. That’s a great incentive for brands to start being transparent with customers about just how sustainable their offering really is.
By Cate Trotter, Head of Trends at Insider Trends, London