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Addressing Greenwashing in the Food Sector

February 2024 by Lily Mann

Photo by nrd on Unsplash

As we approach 2030 – a pivotal milestone in the IPCC’s climate projections – sustainability is becoming an increasingly important topic for consumers, businesses and stakeholders. A third of global consumers are willing to spend 25% more on sustainable products, and two-thirds of Gen-Z consumers are willing to spend 10% more. This consumer demand means that taking action on climate change is critical to both future-proofing businesses and securing a higher-paying customer base.

Considering the advantages of appearing to prioritise sustainability, an EU report found that over half of the products and services marketed as ‘sustainable’, ‘green’, or ‘eco-friendly’ make misleading claims that are unclear, unsubstantiated, and untruthful. This is known as ‘greenwashing’.

One industry that requires intervention to avoid driving us towards the climate crisis is the food sector. Emissions are created throughout the food system, including production, transportation, processing, storage, retail and food waste management. The combined emissions generated by the food system amount to 34% of total global greenhouse gas levels. There is a lot of room for action but none for greenwashing. The new Carbon Literacy Shareable Food Course is helping organisations to identify these solutions.

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing occurs in subtle and sophisticated forms that can be difficult to spot, with overt lies contributing less than 1% of instances. These include:

  • Green Labelling: The misleading use of vague terms, such as ‘green’, ‘sustainable’ or ‘eco-friendly’
  • Green Crowding: Interorganisational collaboration that appears to create momentum and drive action but makes minimal progress towards goals
  • Green Lighting: Spotlighting positive, impressive (and usually small) actions to draw attention away from the environmentally damaging bigger picture
  • Green Shifting: Over-emphasising the responsibility of individual consumers to divert attention away from industrial emissions
  • Green Rinsing: Changing targets before they are achieved, making it difficult to track progress towards goals
  • Green Hushing: Avoiding criticism by only partially disclosing environmental impacts

How does this affect the Food Sector?

Reports confirm that greenwashing is already an issue in the sector, with many carbon reduction claims made by prominent UK food retailers found to be misleading. The sector’s sustainability actions too often involve vague terms, carbon offsetting, and misplacing responsibility on consumers.

In a report titled ‘Smoke & Mirrors‘, from the international panel of experts at IPES-Food, heed caution when using the terms ‘agroecology’, ‘regenerative agriculture’, and ‘nature-based solutions’, all of which have gained traction in global approaches to food system sustainability. As these terms tend to have unclear and unregulated definitions, claims can be difficult to substantiate and used misleadingly to celebrate actions of minimal significance.

Only a third of global agrifood businesses claiming to use regenerative agriculture have any formal targets, while The Carbon Trust has thrown out its ‘carbon-neutral’ label (formerly on 886 food and drink products) due to transparency issues with offsetting schemes. The British Retail Consortium’s Climate Action Roadmap, of which most of the UK’s major supermarkets are signatories, focuses on guiding customer choices, missing an opportunity to transform the sector internally.

In this landscape, organisations may find delivering the climate action consumers expect challenging, especially without falling into the greenwashing trap. In 2023, the UK and EU both proposed anti-greenwashing laws (the Green Claims Code and Green Claim’s Directive, respectively), which will be used to support customer protection laws and encourage customers to report misleading, vague and unsubstantiated claims from businesses about their sustainability. In light of such legislation, it is essential that organisations can ensure the legitimacy of their climate policies.

How can Carbon Literacy Training deter Greenwashing in the Food Sector?

The Carbon Literacy Project offers everyone a day’s worth of interactive and relevant climate change learning. Feedback suggests gaining Carbon Literacy has been a highly insightful catalyst for effective climate change action within organisations.

A Shareable Course, specifically tailored for the food industry, has been developed to empower the sector to take decisive action against climate change. Recognising the critical need for sustainable practices in the food sector, the course is designed to equip organisations with the knowledge and tools necessary to combat climate change effectively. The Shareable Course for the Food Sector offers:

  • Peer-led training and customisable slides enabling learners to contextualise the climate crisis within their workplace, providing the knowledge and skills to identify and develop specific responses for emissions reduction in organisations.
  • A positive learning approach that emphasises actionable steps to address climate change.
  • Farm-to-fork learning covering climate change science, social inequity, actions, and communication.
  • A recognisable standard that was named by the UN as a TAP100 and has certified over 80,000 learners as Carbon Literate in 25 countries across 13 sectors from 6,000 organisations.

How can Carbon Literacy benefit your organisation?

  • Embed sustainable values into the skill set of your employees, fostering the proactive development and communication of climate strategies across Scopes 1, 2, and 3.
  • Enhance competitive advantage, seize market opportunities, and enhance public perception, appealing to investors, employees, and consumers alike.
  • Better risk management for future-proofed operations and supply chains.

Curious about the climate action Carbon Literacy training could unlock in your workplace? Explore further here. Or get in touch via food@carbonliteracy.com for the Shareable Food Course.

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