In April 2019 New York City passed its “Climate Mobilization Act” and released OneNYC 2050, a long-term strategic plan for the city’s resilient and equitable development. The plan acknowledges that “[w]e need to eliminate our contributions to climate-change-causing GHG emissions and build neighborhoods and infrastructure that support sustainable lifestyles and consumption, while creating economic opportunity for all.” So, a key question for those of us invested in food policy, is how can food regulations help cities and nations effectively lower their carbon footprint? Earlier in October 2018, Denmark also released its 2050 Climate Plan “Together for a Greener Future,” including a specific strategy introducing carbon labelling for food products.

To consider the relevance of food eco-labels and the Denmark carbon food label proposal for food policy in New York City, CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute Director of Food Policy Monitor Rositsa T. Ilieva interviewed Jason J. Czarnezki, author of “The Future of Food Eco-Labeling” and “Crafting Next Generation Eco-Label Policy,” Associate Dean and Executive Director of Environmental Law Programs, and Gilbert and Sarah Kerlin Distinguished Professor of Environmental Law at Pace University.

RI: What are “food eco-labels”? And how are they different from climate food labels, for instance?

JC: The first thing we have to understand is “What are eco-labels?” We’ve seen a proliferation of eco-labels or environmental labels on a whole host of products. Eco-labels, in general, are a form of environmental regulation, and they’ve really grown in recent years as an alternative to traditional command and control environmental law. There’s probably between 500-1000 labels worldwide offering some definition of environmentally friendly products. In the food context alone and in the US, there are at least 20 different eco-labels and environmental certifications. To answer your question, a food eco-label is a regulatory instrument which can be created by a private entity or a public government that can provide consumers with information about their product. In the case of a food product, an eco-label may show what its environmental footprint might be and that can include a lot of information.

RI: How do eco-labels impact consumer choices and the overall food retail market? Could you share some examples of (successful) food eco-labeling schemes that have led to measurable changes either in consumer demand or producer practices?

JC: Eco-labels can serve a variety of functions and they have the potential to improve environmental outcomes in a number of ways. First, eco-labels can educate consumers about the environmental attributes of those products, and, therefore, incentivize the marketplace for more green products by increasing consumer demand for environmentally friendly attributes and lowering demand for harmful attributes. Consumers can be both individual consumers like you and me, or large public purchasers like governments through sustainable, green public procurement. The second thing eco-labels do is to provide a basis for companies and governments to set measurable sustainability goals for sourcing standards and transparency. When you create an eco-label, it provides a benchmark or baseline which either purchasers or producers can strive for. Also, eco-labels, particularly those that identify negative attributes, can expose companies to reputational harm that may incentivize companies to change the product formulation or product processes even if it doesn’t impact consumer demands. Eco-labels in that way can serve a variety of functions.

The next part of thinking about successful eco-labelling schemes is what is effective. There are different types of eco-labels. For instance, there are first-party eco-labels where the producer simply makes a statement that their product is environmentally friendly. However, what’s becoming more commonplace are third-party certified eco-labels where a public entity or a nonprofit organization is certifying that a product meets one or more specific environmental characteristics. These are certifications independent from the organization or the producer that is seeking the eco-label, and they provide a more objective standard that you hope an eco-label would have. There is also data suggesting that eco-labels that are very well-known and have been in the marketplace for a long time are more readily accepted by the consumer. This very much changes on a country-by-country basis. In the US, the USDA organic logo is probably the most well-known logo. Conversely, in Sweden, the most well-known organic logo is KRAV, which is a nonprofit organization serving as a third-party certifier. So, in this case, the standards are set by the nonprofit organization and not a product of government regulation. At the end of the day, you want an eco-label that’s going to be well-known and widely accepted within society.

RI: Related do this, what do you think is the best way to educate consumers about a carbon footprint food label? It is important for consumer to be familiar with the information on food eco-labels and carbon food labels, but there’s also a dimension of trust in this. How is education, if at all, a part of that?

JC: That’s a challenging question. Under one view, we shouldn’t need eco-labels at all. Because we are using an eco-label, we are relying on consumers to make the right decision. So what we’ve seen is a transition from traditional public environmental law which would say this product is bad for you or producing a food item this way is troublesome and, therefore, you should not produce it this way; that’s what law would tell you to do. Instead we have shifted to a more neo-liberal model allowing a variety of productions choices, even ones that might be a little bit more harmful or even a lot more harmful to public health and the environment and we’ve left it up for consumers to choose. I think one could very much criticize this neo-liberal transition but, given that we’ve already made this neo-liberal turn, now the question becomes: If we have a well-known eco-label with high confidence in its certification and there are high levels of transparency and high levels of verification, how do we ensure that consumers are picking those eco-labels? There are some things that we can do.

First of all, you want to design your eco-label in a way that will attract customers and consumers. We want to look at what social norms might be in certain communities so certain eco-labels are most attractive. We also want to look at labels that might be locally salient or important in certain communities. Finally, even though eco-labels protect a broader environment, people are most receptive to them when we can highlight private near-term benefits. [This is healthy for me now and healthy for my personal community right now.] To the extent labels can do that, consumers are more likely to choose those products and of course always there is the issue of price. Ultimately, by creating an eco-label and a market demand for certain products that are environmentally friendly, that would lead to lower pricing.

RI: How does Denmark’s recently proposed carbon labeling initiative compare to existing environmental labeling regimes for food like those you have examined in your work? For instance, what lessons can Denmark learn from previous climate labeling experiments, like those carried out in Sweden?

JC: I think the interesting part about the Danish proposal for carbon labeling is that it’s specifically considering carbon labeling and specifically considering food. The trend is to move to a lifecycle assessment model which includes the extraction, manufacturing, production, distribution, and disposal cost for goods across the entire supply chain considering all the environmental externalities which include carbon emissions, but would also include land use, water, and waste and now it’s going even farther to consider not only the first pillar of sustainability which is environmental, but also other pillars of sustainability which would also be economic inequality and social welfare. I think what’s interesting about the Danish proposal is that if you do believe that climate is the biggest crisis, then to focus entirely on that makes sense. What’s fascinating also is their desire to do it just for food and agriculture. This makes a lot of sense with 20-25%, depending on the data, of the world’s carbon footprint coming from the food and agricultural industry. But it’s also a market very challenging to measure in terms of carbon footprint. It’s extremely difficult to measure the carbon footprint of food products. Imagine you produce orange juice. If you’re producing orange juice, you’re getting oranges from all sorts of different farms all on different days, bringing oranges to your factory. How do we measure the land use operation and the carbon operations, depending on what pesticides are used or what machines were used, on all those different farms and then bring that together to come up with a carbon label for that food? The supply chain system and the value chain of food products are quite spread out and more varied than those of durable goods like t-shirts, for instance. If you look at the Danish proposal the second sentence is “this is a highly ambitious goal’, and I agree with that completely.

RI: How important is framing in eco-labeling advocacy? How have eco-labeling advocates around the world and in Denmark framed the policy? (e.g., as a right to know/warning label, as a market mechanism to change consumer demand, or as a means to prompt producers to reduce their impacts)

JC: Certainly, for individual consumers, eco-labeling is framed as a belief in the right to know. If consumers believe the environmental impact of a product is affecting their local communities or their own personal health, that’s going to be the most effective from an individual consumer standpoint. As for framing it for the producers, I think it’s important to identify what practices producers are engaged in and which are the most environmentally destructive and have the highest carbon footprint. By doing so, the thought is that can cause some reputational harm for those producers allowing them to change their behavior.

RI: What are some of the recurrent major arguments for and against a carbon label food policy? Do you have a sense of how this is playing out in Denmark after the announcement of the nation’s 2050 climate plan? What are downsides or unintended consequences of a carbon food label policy?

JC: I think it’s asking a lot of consumers. It’s asking both individual consumers and institutional purchasers to assimilate lots of information across a large number of goods. When it’s a small municipality or individual people making decisions about what to buy, it’s one thing to make a decision about a single product, but when you’re at the grocery store, you’re making decisions about dozens and dozens of products and comparing across products. Do I buy this apple or this bag of chips? Do I buy the chips that are organic, or do I buy the conventionally produced apple? Well, the conventionally produced apple is probably healthier and has a lower carbon footprint than the organic bag of chips. So you’re forcing people to make some very challenging decisions even when you supply them with information and in that way, I worry about putting the burden on purchasers to make environmental decisions when the companies themselves have more information and governments have more resources in order to streamline and improve production techniques. So rather than relying on labels, there are other forms of public regulation, other forms of private environmental governance which we might prefer.

RI: Yes, all these are very important and call attention to the complexity of the decision making that goes also into deciding what product to purchase in the grocery store. I wonder if you’ve come across any of these aspects being debated in the EU or Denmark?

JC: Well, the EU passed a new directive in 2014 which specifically allows public purchasers, municipal governments and national governments, to consider sustainability factors when purchasing goods. As part of the new regulation, they’re allowed to consider lifecycle costs of all goods and services that they are purchasing, including food. So, imagine that governments purchase a lot of food for hospitals, schools, and prisons and when purchasing, they are also allowed to include the criteria that might be listed- the environmental and sustainability criteria- that might be listed in any food eco-label. So, you are seeing a strong movement to begin to measure and then ultimately quantify and monetize what the environmental externalities are of all goods and services in Europe, including food.

RI: Could the US to pursue a carbon food label policy and legislation? Is it hard to adapt some of the models tested in other countries like Sweden or Denmark?

JC: Absolutely, from a national level we could adjust or change the process of obtaining an organic label certification. We could create some sort of best practices as it relates to carbon footprint for food such as: in order to receive the organic label, the company would also have to improve their carbon footprint. That’s what occurred in Sweden where the original KRAV organic label meant that it was not using pesticides and other environmentally problematic production techniques but then also it was becoming more carbon friendly as well. In addition, under federal law there’s nothing to stop any individual state government from creating their own organic label which would incorporate all US federal law organic label requirements but add additional requirements related to carbon emissions. In that way, an individual state could create, for example a New York state organic plus logo, which could contain all of the federal organic standards, but the plus part would be some additional carbon standards in order to get that logo.

RI: Can you comment on how scale (e.g., state vs. national) and domain (e.g., private sector vs. government) of implementation affects the effectiveness of eco-labeling policies and initiatives?

JC: Scale and domain are both important. The EU for example tried to create a large-scale eco-label and they started the EU flower logo. Now it’s just the EU eco-label and that was good because it generated broad-based standards. But at the same time, local domain was important, so you had logos, like the Blue Angel logo in Germany and the KRAV and Nordic Swan logos in Sweden, which are very well known in those countries. In the case of the EU, EU-level logos are workable, but because people are wedded to whatever their national logo is, the national eco-label logo that they are used to, those have become more dominant. I think there are still some important things to work out. Scale is important and you need a large enough scale, so you have consistency in methodology and consistency in standards, but you need a small enough scale, so people feel that it’s related to their community and their jurisdiction and domain.

RI: What does the future of food eco-labeling look like? What advice do you have for researchers and sustainable food systems advocates willing to contribute to this debate?

JC: I guess I would have two points of advice. First, we need to develop a standardized methodology for measuring the lifecycle costs of food products. This would include carbon footprint but other environmental externalities as well. And then we need to figure out a way to convey that information to consumers in an easily recognizable form of an eco-label. In summary, the eco-label provides a certification or informational portal which summarizes a very complex standardized methodology about the environmental externalities of a product.