Supermarket food could soon be carrying ‘green’ labels which will help shoppers make eco-friendly choices regarding how their weekly food shop affects the planet.
Researchers at Oxford University trained a computer algorithm to work out the environmental impact of 57,000 supermarket products, allowing shoppers to see the environmental impact of the food they buy on a daily basis.
The scientific study – which has been published this week – is the the first time an easy-to-use method of calculating the impact of products with multiple ingredients has been developed. It has the potential to be rolled out across supermarkets and grocery stores and could make a huge impact, with “several corporations in the retail sector” already showing an interest.
The database scores food and drink products, assessing the impact of growing methods, processing and transport against key environmental measures such as greenhouse gas emissions and impacts on nature. The higher the score, the higher the environmental impact.
Eco-labelling – which could appear as a traffic light system or a QR code linking to more information – would allow the environmental information to be applied apply consistently across different foods and supermarkets.
Oxford University professor Peter Scarborough told BBC News he hopes that the research leads to an eco-labelling system for customers, adding that the food industry has been “crying out” for the new tool.
Scarborough also believes supermarkets and suppliers could use the tool to cut their environmental footprint, leading to an even bigger impact, saying the tool “fills a huge gap”
“Manufacturers, caterers and retailers have targets for reaching net zero and they don’t have the tools they need to get there.”
The research was led by Dr Michael Clark, who described the tool as “a significant step towards providing information that could enable informed decision-making”, adding that a number of companies have already asked when the information is going to be available for them to use instore.
“If you look at the UK, about 55% of consumers say that they want to make more sustainable decisions on their food,” he said.
“From a consumer perspective it would be very helpful to have some information out there.”
The research also highlighted that plant-based alternatives are often greener than meat or dairy-based options, with vegan sausages typically scoring an environmental impact around 90% lower than beef sausages.