Environmental score for all food products motivates companies to become more sustainable

May 17, 2023

It may seem like yet another quality certificate, but a new label that gives all food products an environmental score turns out to be more than just a tool for consumers. It could in fact be the key to motivating companies to make more data available on the sustainability of their operations. “It all starts with data,” says Koen Boone, MA, of Wageningen University & Research. “There can be no new policy and innovation without it.” This is the subject of Koen’s talk at the international innovation summit F&A Next on the Wageningen Campus.

An eco-label shows how sustainable a food product is. Various versions of such a label are already in circulation, and a growing number of supermarkets are experimenting with it. In the Netherlands, Lidl conducted a test by giving coffee and tea a score between A and E. In the Wageningen branch, too, these scores appeared next to the price. In Belgium, supermarket chain Colruyt has provided 15,000 products with an eco-label, and the French government plans to introduce such a label for all food sold in France by the end of this year.


Researcher Koen Boone, Coordinator for Sustainable Chains at Wageningen Economic Research, has studied the potential impact of eco-labelling. He is the European Director of the Sustainability Consortium, a partnership of nearly 100 companies, NGOs and universities focused on sustainability, under the coordination of Wageningen University & Research. Boone is working towards what is known as a ‘harmonised’ label for all food products. “A label based on European requirements with standardised measurements according to established indicators,” explains Boone. Such a label can ensure that companies really take steps to become more sustainable.

Transparency drives sustainability

“These days, making a company more sustainable can have all sorts of meanings. For some companies, it's all just talk, while other companies actually make progress,” says Boone. Some companies provide insight into the steps they're taking, but others do not do so yet. It is hard to distinguish greenwashing from truly sustainable business practices. The companies that do show their figures are not all doing it in the same way, making it difficult to compare them.

For consumers, the new eco-label will appear as an ‘environmental score’ on products, but that is not its most important function, says Boone. “The label motivates companies to become more transparent about how sustainable their food products are,” he says. “Because the environmental score effectively commodifies sustainability, companies are willing to provide more insight into the sustainability of their operations.” Just as products now compete based on price, in future, consumers will be able to compare products based on sustainability. This makes it interesting for companies.

“This makes the market a driving force behind sustainability,” Boone stresses. To get a better score, a company must actually start making changes. Indeed, the new eco-label will be linked to European requirements and agreements. “Part of this is ‘harmonised’ reporting: every company has to report in the same way and will be assessed in the same areas, for example.” This ensures the ease of comparison that is so crucial for competition.

Opportunities for innovation - with data

The data from those reports, that’s what it's all about. “Once there is enough data available, all kinds of parties can work with it. Not only consumers, but also businesses and governments can base themselves on it.” Norwegian supermarket Oda, for example, experimented with their receipts in 2020. On the receipt, products were divided into different emission categories to raise consumer awareness. “Another option is gamification. Colruyt is inviting their consumers to save green points by buying sustainable products. By means of an application, consumers can then distribute these points as contributions to projects with a positive environmental impact or earn sustainable gifts.”

A big step is due to take place in 2024. Next year, the European Commission will make harmonised reporting mandatory for companies. This is attracting a lot of attention. “I’ve had several intensive meetings with CEOs of major Dutch companies to discuss what this means for them. This has a direct impact.” The eco-label is also under discussion at an international level.