Effective approaches to environmental labelling of food products

Funded by: Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)


January 2010 to August 2010

PSI researchers:

Background, summary and aims

Background, Scope and Aims

The environmental impacts of food production are complex and accumulate throughout a production chain from primary production, processing, packing, distribution, retail to end use (consumption). There are a number of drivers that can help reduce these impacts including legislative instruments, retail marketing and consumer choices and demand. One driver that has received attention in recent years is the use of product labels, whereby the environmental 'credentials' of a product are communicated to the consumer.

This project explored the practicality and effectiveness of environmental labelling of food as a mechanism to promote behavioural change in order to reduce the negative environmental impacts of food production and consumption. It compared the pros and cons of different labelling formats, including omni-labels, and investigated the potential burden, particularly costs, that introducing such a label would have on industry including food producers and exporters. The project is a collaboration between the Agriculture and Environment Research Unit (AERU) at the University of Hertfordshire, the Food Ethics Council and PSI.

Project Design

The project was structured around five discrete tasks

  1. A state-of-the-art review on environmental labelling, including existing schemes and how they operate will be undertaken. The aim was to provide an evidence base to be utilised in the subsequent tasks;
  2. An analysis of the key issues associated with measuring, assessing and communicating environmental impacts within the context of what is required for a scientifically credible and robust labelling scheme, and how environmental impacts can be measured, integrated and communicated;
  3. A consultation exercise with industry and consumer behaviour experts including interviews, a one-day workshop and the use of a multi-criteria mapping (MCM) process. This will helped to assess the effectiveness of labelling as a mechanism for raising awareness of environmental issues and driving behavioural change (amongst consumers and industry) and identifying the key benefits and burdens to industry of labelling schemes;
  4. The development of a framework for effective and practical environmental labelling for food products. This consolidated the findings of tasks 1 to 3 into a set of set of criteria (or objectives) that any labelling scheme for food should aim or aspire to meet, within the context of a logical and systematic framework.
  5. Drew together all the findings from the previous tasks into a final report to make recommendations on the feasibility of food environmental labelling in the UK.

Importance of Research

The main purpose of this research is to support policy and to help address concerns raised by various stakeholders regarding the design and impact of environmental labelling. The work supports Defra's overall strategic policy objective, which seeks to ensure a secure, sustainable and healthy food supply by building a scientifically informed basis to developing environmental food labels.

The Environmental Audit Committee has raised concerns regarding the need for clarity and simplicity in the context of food labels and the International Development Committee has also highlighted the possibility of impacts on the industry including food exporters. This research will help address both of these issues.

The project outputs are of interest to all stakeholders with an interest in environmental labelling including Defra, Food Standards Agency, industry and consumer bodies.


  • Final report
  • Annex A - literature review
  • Annex B - analysis of environmental impacts and their integration and communication
  • Annex C - consumer and industry costs, benefits and behaviour
  • Annex D - development of a framework for practical and effective environmental labelling