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Oatly's Campaign for Transparency in Food and Drink: A Carbon Footprint Case Study

Oatly, a Swedish plant-based milk brand has recently called attention to the lack of accessible information about the climate footprint of food and drink products. With the role of transparency in the food and drink industry under scrutiny, the big question is whether revealing carbon footprint data should be mandatory.

What sets Oatly apart from other brands is its bold “anti-advertising” marketing strategy. Their website “F*ck Oatly” delivers a clear message: no company is perfect, but consumers deserve transparency. “F*ck Oatly” doesn’t shy away from addressing several controversies, including the selling of oat residue to pig farms, an action seemingly at odds with their public stance against animal agriculture.


Growing Demand For Carbon Labelling

Oatly has been committed to “carbon labelling” since 2019, a practice they believe should be mandatory for all food and drink companies. They are not alone. According to a recent survey by Oatly, 62% of UK consumers believe that companies should reveal their carbon footprint, with 55% in favour of it being a legal requirement. Of particular significance is the strong support for this idea among young people aged 18-34, many of whom expressed a willingness to change their consumption habits if provided with accurate climate data. This data signals a growing demand for sustainability in the food and drink industry. So why isn’t carbon labelling already an industry norm?

Carbon labelling is a cost-effective strategy that could empower individuals to make more informed choices. It is not an entirely foreign concept, as we regularly encounter it in various aspects of our lives. For instance, when purchasing a house, we review energy performance certificates (EPC), and we make decisions about household appliances based on their energy efficiencies. We are also increasingly mindful of our vehicles’ emissions.

Bryan Carroll, UK general manager at Oatly, says: “The food and drink we consume is responsible for a third of total UK emissions. Scientists, including the UK Government’s own Climate Change Committee, are clear that those emissions must urgently come down and that consumer behaviour change is a necessary part of that. Our view is that it’s unreasonable to expect this to happen when consumers are not being given the information they need to make informed choices. Given the urgency of our climate challenge, we believe it should be as easy for shoppers to find the climate impact of what they’re buying, as it is to find its price tag.” 


The Climate Crisis And The Food Industry

As Oatly emphasises in a Grey Paper, titled ‘Climate Labelling: Why Not?’, the food system contributes to 35% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. In recognition of this, the UK Government’s Climate Change Committee has explicitly recommended that we reduce our dairy intake by 20% by 2030. Given the urgency of the climate crisis, turning our attention to the food and drink industries seems like a step in the right direction.

Oatly is dedicated to easing the way towards environmentally conscious shopping. The brand has targeted the dairy industry in particular, as the data presents a large disparity between the CO2 emissions of plant-based products and dairy products. In its recent campaign, Oatly paid for advertising space so that dairy businesses could publish the emissions data of their own products. This would allow consumers to compare the CO2 emissions data of various food and drink items, enabling them to make informed purchases. But is this a realistic expectation of consumers and is it necessary when real change lies in the hands of policymakers and big businesses?


Making Carbon Data Accessible

As long as the information is not overwhelming and is made simple and accessible, individuals could cut down on food and drink with the highest environmental impact. The Food Data Transparency Partnership, established by the UK Government, aims to clarify what the requirements of carbon labelling should be. It recognises that there needs to be a standardised approach to measuring and displaying climate data.

Right now, carbon labelling won’t mean an awful lot to consumers. The average consumer doesn’t know, for example, whether 0.49 kg of CO2 per 1kg of whole oat drink is a figure to be concerned about. We need the figures from other companies to reduce our climate footprint.

Moreover, the data must be easy to interpret or companies risk bombarding their customers with too much information. When at the supermarket, there are so many factors to consider. Food packaging already displays a wealth of data, most of it nutritional information. There is also the fact that dairy options tend to be cheaper than plant-based ones.

It has been suggested before that food and drink should have some sort of colour-coded system, like EPC ratings. But clearly, other companies need to reveal their data to make this achievable. While some critics are sceptical of carbon labelling and point to the limited impact of labels with sugar warnings on individuals’ buying habits, people are much more environmentally conscious of their habits these days. With broad public support for carbon labelling, it becoming a standard practice could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.


Following Oatly’s Example

Carbon labelling needs to be a collaborative effort, but very few brands have followed Oatly’s example so far. Tenzing and Quorn are two such brands, but it’s slow progress. Oatly’s promise that “Dietary change can deliver environmental benefits on a scale not achievable by producers” is only realisable if carbon labelling becomes mandatory. They’ve made it clear that carbon labelling, if done right, won’t be yet another instance of greenwashing. However, at this rate, consumers may continue to be in the dark about the environmental impact of their purchases for some time.

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