Sustainability in food has been an increased focus for consumers and companies in recent years, and the effects of emissions on climate change have been in the spotlight again recently due to extreme weather in several parts of the world. But a new survey has suggested that most consumers don’t actually know what “carbon-neutral” means.
Many major food and consumer packaged goods companies, including major names like Mondelēz International Inc. and Mars Inc., have labelled their products as “carbon-neutral” to indicate that they take environmental responsibility seriously.
What carbon-neutral means is that the harm done to the planet by the emissions released into the atmosphere in the creation, production, and transportation of the product have been compensated for by “offsets” or donations to projects and actions that reduce emissions such as by planting trees or sequestering carbon.
However, it seems this may be lost on many people.
New data from Morning Consult show that while people are concerned about climate change, familiarity with the concept of carbon neutrality is not as common as one might think.
In a survey, respondents were asked whether they could identify the correct definition of “carbon-neutral” from a list of three options. Out of more than 2,200 U.S. adults surveyed, only 41 per cent correctly identified the definition of carbon neutrality (“a company that produces carbon emissions but uses carbon-offset programs to remove as much carbon as they produce from the atmosphere”).
A clear majority (59 per cent) either incorrectly identified the term or said they did not know what it meant.
Even among self-identified environmentalists (those who said they have changed their behaviour due to concern about climate change), less than half (45 per cent) correctly identified the meaning of carbon neutrality.
Clearly, there is a lack of knowledge around the facts and the logistics of carbon neutrality. For food businesses, what this may suggest is that more transparency and education of customers is advisable.
There is certainly a problem with awareness.
The survey found that a majority (52 per cent) of Americans said they have not seen a carbon-neutral label, and an additional 14 per cent indicated they never try to buy those products. Even among environmentalists, awareness was only slightly higher, with about half (49 per cent) saying they have never seen the designation.
But, for some, seeing a carbon-neutral or environmentally friendly label makes a difference.
Just under one in four U.S. adults (23 per cent) said that a product having a label that shows it’s environmentally sustainable is a major factor in deciding what food or beverage brand to buy over another, found the survey.
However, while carbon-neutral labels may come from a genuine desire to be sustainable, they can obscure a product’s true effect on the environment, according to Doug Stephens, founder of Retail Prophet.
“Offsets are rather murky,” said Stephens, who has worked with brands like Walmart as a retail futurist. “If you say your product is carbon-neutral, does that include your vendors and your vendors’ vendors? Or are you restricting it to your own activities? It needs to be analyzed in an end-to-end way.”
Stephens stressed that brands should think of carbon neutrality and wider sustainability as a part of brand identity, not just a selling point for marketing purposes.
“The brands that are indeed purpose-driven, that put social and environmental causes at the heart of their brand, have a greater chance of securing customer loyalty,” he said.