ESRC Virtual Festival – Creating a label to help us make more sustainable food choices…

Recent years have been a remarkable increase in interest in our environment. TV programmes such as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth have been credited as increasing our awareness of the environment and even changing our behaviour. From cutting back on meat consumption to ditching single-use plastics, many of us have changed our lifestyles.

While there are many ways in which our behaviour affects the environment, the production and consumption of food and drink has a strong impact. Some estimates state that food-related production accounts for 18-35% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 48-70% of land and water use. As well as direct environmental impacts, food and drink production and consumption also impacts other important areas such as animal welfare, fair trade, and worker’s safety and rights. Together, these environmental, social, and economic issues are considered as ‘sustainability’.

It is currently difficult to be mindful of the sustainability credentials of the food and drink that we are purchasing. We can avoid plastic packaging and look for symbols relating to areas such as animal welfare and organic, but what about community engagement or responsible tax payments? How can we compare products and make decisions?

At the beginning of this year, a team of researchers from Queen’s University Belfast, Aarhus University, University of Hohenheim, University of Reading, and VTT Finland came together with the aim of making sustainability purchasing decisions easier. In the TruSTFood (Trust, Sustainability and Transparency in Food) project the team are working to develop a consumer-friendly, holistic, sustainability label.

One of the first tasks of the project was to understand key opportunities and challenges in developing such a label. Experts generally agreed on the need for a consumer-friendly sustainability label, however, they also recognised the complexity and complications that may arise in attempting to measure and simplify multiple sustainability dimensions into a single label, and across multiple products. The difficulty in matching the wants and needs of organisations such as industry and government was also mentioned.

Overall, the development of a consumer-friendly sustainability label is no small task. With many possible sustainability aspects and so little space on packaging, prioritising which measures to highlight in a label is a key task for the project. Any label developed should not only be technically possible, but must also balance the (sometimes very different) needs of consumers, industry, and the government. Ultimately, however, any findings will push forward research in this area and the development of a sustainability label, hopefully leading to a fairer and greener planet.

If you are interested in responsible food shopping, you can hear more from researchers at Queen’s who are looking into creating simple sustainability labels for food and drink. As part of the ESRC NI Festival of Social Science, you can join Dr Tony Benson to hear about the processes and challenges faced by industry and researchers in helping you discover the real cost of your weekly shop. There will also be an opportunity to have your say via an interactive poll.

You can register for this event by clicking here, which takes place on Wednesday 11 November at 4pm.

Dr Tony Benson is a Research Fellow in the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast.

Click here to view all events in the ESRC Virtual Festival.

Photo by dbreen is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA

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