The dairy alternative brand Oatly is using its newly reformulated oat milk yogurt line to introduce U.S. consumers to its climate footprint label — which the company has featured on products in European markets since 2021. Seeing more carbon footprint labels on food products could signal an important shift toward more informed and responsible consumption, as Americans report a willingness to make changes for the sake of the planet.
Such labeling could be a boon for producers with small carbon footprints while perhaps encouraging carbon-heavy producers in sectors like such as beef to find ways to lighten the load. But widespread use and standardization across the food industry will be necessary for it to be effective.
"Transforming the food industry is necessary to meet the current climate challenge, and we believe providing consumers with information to understand the impact of their food choices is one way we as a company can contribute to that effort," Julie Kunen, director of sustainability for Oatly North America, said in a statement.
There's good reason to believe that a significant number of consumers will adjust their choices accordingly. A joint study by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, the University of Michigan and Harvard University found that climate impact labels on food menus did influence respondents to choose a chicken, fish or vegetarian meal over a beef one. Warning labels were more effective in deterring people from choosing beef than low-impact labels were at encouraging people to eat an alternative. While it was a small study with a limited scope, the research does point to the potential for carbon footprint labels to inform people's diets.
The global food system accounts for between a quarter and a third of annual greenhouse gas emissions, depending on methodology, leaving plenty of room for improvement — and impact.
For its part, Oatly compares its climate footprint labeling — which will list the product's climate impact from "grower to grocer" in kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) — to the nutritional information that is already required on packaging. The CO2e measurements include not just carbon emissions, but also other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide and methane which have been converted into interchangeable units in order to incorporate them in the total footprint.
However, the brand is clear that carbon footprint labels are neither required nor standardized, and they're of little recourse to consumers until they become so. Thus the brand is hoping to inspire other producers in the industry to follow suit while encouraging consumers to eat more plant-based and low-carbon alternatives.
"The products we make at Oatly aim to make it easy for people to make the switch to non-dairy alternatives, and great taste is one of the most essential components of driving that conversion," Leah Hoxie, the brand's senior vice president of innovation in North America, explained further in a statement.
Taste has been a barrier for the plant-based movement, with major strides made in the latest generation of plant-based meats and dairy products that have hit the market. Indeed, more people are willing to make the leap to eating lower on the food chain as the taste, texture and price of alternatives become more palatable.
Fostering a sense of responsibility for the climate in their business practices and labeling should work in Oatly's favor, especially among Gen Z.
Consumers have long been burdened with a status quo that makes doing the right thing more difficult, so it's no wonder we have fallen into a food system that pollutes and destroys ecosystems at a rate far higher than it should. But by providing climate impact information on product packaging, brands can gain consumer trust and demonstrate that they also trust the consumer to make the right choice.
As the balance of information shifts and becomes more equitable, consumers could be empowered not just to lower their own gastronomic impact on the climate, but to expect better from the food industry as well. Naturally this would require a more intricate labeling system — perhaps including warnings on high-impact items — but Oatly is off to a promising start.
Fellow plant-based brand Quorn also includes carbon footprint labels on product packaging, and CPG giant Unilever has committed to roll such labeling out to its entire product portfolio. Other sectors, from beauty to tech, are also looking toward climate labels in a trend that seems to be just heating up.
Image courtesy of Oatly
Riya Anne Polcastro is an author, photographer and adventurer based out of the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys writing just about anything, from gritty fiction to business and environmental issues. She is especially interested in how sustainability can be harnessed to encourage economic and environmental equity between the Global South and North. One day she hopes to travel the world with nothing but a backpack and her trusty laptop.