Climate change is the context against which everything marketers do must be judged – and carbon labelling will be the next step for brands, say Helen Brain and Pauline Robson of MediaCom.

At least 50% of people globally have a greater desire to change their lifestyle to be more environmentally friendly, while 77% of corporate product and retail organisations indicate that sustainability leads to increases in customer loyalty. 

As consumers become increasingly concerned about the products they buy and their effects on the environment, brands will have to respond -- we’ve already seen a backlash against brands that do not pay factory workers fairly or use ingredients that are unethically sourced. 

Currently, food production contributes to a quarter of global carbon emissions. It’s this category where consumers most regularly see the impact they make at an individual level and it’s here, too, where momentum is building for brands to demonstrate how they are addressing their environmental impact.

Carbon labelling could well be part of the answer to meeting consumer demands, while easing the burden on our planet through better decision making. With sustainable and ethical practices leading to increased brand loyalty, it’s a no brainer for brands to invest in an approach that puts the ethical consumer first and gets them ahead of legislative pressure that is sure to follow.

We’ve seen this pressure before

It’s been more than 25 years since the display of nutritional content on food packaging was introduced, and in 2016 European regulation passed to make nutrition labelling compulsory.

In the UK, the then-groundbreaking traffic light coding system illustrated whether a product is high (red)medium (amber) or low (green) in fat, saturated fat, salt and sugars. It was born from the fact that consumers wanted to easily compare foods and introduce healthier choices into their day-to-day lives.

The HFSS ban is set to be another step towards healthier lifestyles, with sweets, chocolate, pizza and other unhealthy foods to be banned from advertisements before the 9pm watershed.

We can expect to see a similar trajectory applied to products with high carbon footprints. And bearing in mind the urgency of our carbon challenge, the timeline from initial labelling trials to full-scale adoption and even enforcement is likely to be much quicker this time round.

But what does this mean for brands and consumers? In a nutshell, brands should expect to have to put labels on their products which transparently demonstrate their environmental impacts.

Put your money where your label is

Food and personal care brands haven’t even begun to scratch the surface when it comes to carbon labelling. They need to devise an efficient strategy to ensure the information about the carbon footprint in the foods people are consuming is readily available and easily understood. Consumers won’t wait – they’ll pay with their wallet to brands that can strike the balance between a great, affordable, and sustainable product.

And brand messaging will be central to success – carbon labels need to mean something to shoppers, otherwise it won’t drive behavioural change. For instance, if people don’t understand what good looks like, how will they be able to use carbon labels as a decision-making tool?

In readiness for these regulatory changes, food and personal care manufacturers must prepare for a world where they’re unable to advertise in certain places (online and offline) and to certain audiences, unless they meet environmentally friendly and sustainable criteria.

Learn from the best

Some brands are spearheading this movement. Quorn, the vegetarian/vegan mycoprotein, and Oatly, the plant-based milk brand, already show carbon footprint data on their packaging; Unilever will be introducing carbon footprint labels on products by the end of the year. 

It will be a missed opportunity for those who are not ‘carbon literate’ in this new world of packaging and branding. Consumers will invest in forward-thinking organisations that can strike the right balance of sustainable and ethical food products that are delicious, all while having a positive impact on society.

Change is coming, and it will be disruption for the better.