Sustainable food

Written evidence submitted by Which?


> Government leadership is needed so that there is greater clarity around what type of food production and consumption is needed in order to tackle the many challenges and trade-offs facing the food system.

> A clearer and more specific and co-ordinated food policy is needed that is informed by a broad-based public debate that understands and takes account of consumer attitudes towards different food production systems and approaches.

> More needs to be done to promote sustainable choices in public institutions, including extending the scope of the Government’s Food Buying Standards.

> Which? research indicates that most people have little understanding of issues around sustainability when buying food, but a significant proportion would be open to paying more attention to the environmental impact of foods if labelling was easier.

> A more co-ordinated approach is needed to reach agreement on the key impacts and context that need to be communicated to consumers based on current evidence.

> Lessons can be learned from the experience of helping consumers make healthier choices. A multi-faceted approach is needed that addresses issues around access, availability, product development and promotion alongside a consistent approach to consumer information and labelling.


1. Which? welcomes this opportunity to submit evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee’s Inquiry into Sustainable Food which is very timely given the many challenges facing the global food system, including the need to produce more food with less of an impact, volatile food prices and the continuing problems of obesity and diet-related disease as recognised by the recent Foresight report on Global Food and Farming Futures.

2. Our evidence focuses largely on how consumers can best be helped to make more sustainable food choices, as this has been our main focus to date.

General comments

3. Successive inquiries and expert reports have set out the challenges that face us in terms of ensuring a sustainable food supply. However, there is still a lack of clarity over what that means in practice both in terms of what sort of food we should be producing and how and how consumers can make more sustainable choices.

4. While the evidence-base is evolving, we are concerned that there is a lack of a clear strategy and guidance on the way forward. Under the previous government, a ‘2030 food strategy’ was published, focused around six main themes: ensuring a competitive, resilient and profitable food system; increasing food production sustainably; increasing the impact of skills; enabling and encouraging people to eat a healthy, sustainable diet; reducing the food systems greenhouse gas emissions; and reducing, reusing and reprocessing waste. The Government has stated that it broadly agrees with these issues and so it is important that further details of how these objectives can be delivered are developed with stakeholders. There is still a need for a clear, co-ordinated food policy. This will help to ensure a greater understanding of what is considered best practice, where the gaps in understanding that need to be resolved lie and how the many trade-offs between different aspects of sustainability can be handled in practice.

5. We see a crucial part of this as a broad-based public debate around food. Producing more food, with a lower impact will require decisions to be made about what type of food production is acceptable and what this means for other considerations from ethics and animal welfare to our landscape. We therefore consider that the public need to be consulted on the way ahead, particularly when the Foresight report indicated that ‘'food production and the food system must assume a much higher priority in political agendas across the world. To address the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead the food system needs to change more radically in the coming decades than ever before, including during the industrial and green revolutions'.

6. Government leadership should also mean leading by example and there is an opportunity for the Government to promote more sustainable food choices within the public bodies and institutions that it has responsibility for. We have supported the development of mandatory Government Food Buying Standards, but are concerned that based on the Government’s consultation these are too limited in scope (the NHS is not included for example) and also in terms of the criteria that are used to underpin them [1] .

How can consumers be helped to make more sustainable choices?

7. The consumer research that Which? has conducted indicates that few people are aware of the types of debates that are taking place around the future of the food system or understand the actions needed in order to reduce the impact of what they eat. It does, however, suggest that many people would be more motivated to make more sustainable, lower impact food choices if it was made easy for them. In a survey conducted in June, seven in ten people interviewed would pay more attention to the environmental impact of the foods they buy if labels were clearer [2] .

8. Making sustainable choices easier requires a combination of actions by retailers to ensure the sustainability of the food on offer to consumers – as we are seeing with fish products for example where many retailers have policies in place around sustainable sourcing, taking this decision out of consumers’ hands – and provision of simple, clear easy to understand information. Providing consumers with clearer information about how to make more sustainable choices should in turn help to drive food industry practices.

9. We conducted three phases of consumer research last year in order to better understand people’s attitudes towards food sustainability, with a particular focus on environmental and ethical labelling schemes [3] :

§ A face-to-face survey to understand how people recognise and view the importance of environmental and ethical labelling, compared with other factors affecting their food choices (1043 people representative of the UK population, aged 16 and above were interviewed in June 2010)

§ A qualitative hall test to gauge the level of interest and understanding of a broad spectrum of people from different backgrounds (30 depth interviews, March 2010, Watford)

§ A series of focus groups held in St Albans and Wellingborough in March 2010 involving people who said they sometimes make more environmentally-friendly or ethical choices involving people from different life stages and backgrounds:

- Group 1: pre-family, 18-25 years old

- Group 2: younger family, 26-40 years old

- Group 3: older family, 41-60 years old

- Group 4: empty nester, 65+ years old.

10. The research found overall that there was a lot of confusion and even more motivated consumers struggled when it came to understanding the broader environmental impacts of their food choices. Sustainability issues were not a priority for most people compared with issues such as taste, safety and price. When asked to rate the importance of different factors when shopping for food, healthy eating and protecting the environment were seen as ‘very important’ by 50 and 29 per cent of people, respectively. This compares with 76 per cent seeing taste/ quality as very important, 93 per cent for food safety and 92 per cent for price. Greater importance was also attached to healthier eating and the environmental impact of food choices in the South of England, compared with Scotland and the North of England.

11. When shown labels on foods that were linked to environmental or ethical issues, there was very little awareness. Some people had never noticed the labels even though they regularly bought the products, as reflected by this typical comment: "I’m actually very familiar with all of these labels, but I’ve never noticed them on a lot of these products which I do buy. Now that you’ve asked me to look, they’re pretty obvious!" (Female, younger family, hall test)

12. The research did, however, indicate that people would be more open to making sustainable food choices if it was easy and straightforward to do so: ""I’m actually quite open to this. The Government just needs to promote it. I’ve bought that bread millions of times, but the footprint is just lost in a sea of information. I think that once you know about it you’d actually look for it though." (Male, younger family, hall test)

13. The survey also reinforced a general lack of awareness of some of the labelling schemes, with Fairtrade standing out as the exception with 82 per cent saying that they had heard of it compared to 33 per cent for Rainforest Alliance, 21 per cent for the Carbon Trust Carbon Footprint label, 20 per cent for Freedom Food and Red Tractor Farm Assured, 6 per cent for the Marine Stewardship Council, 4 per cent for Conservation Grade and 3 per cent for the LEAF marque.

14. When presented with the examples of the labelling schemes in the focus groups, there was also a lack of understanding of what they actually meant. Again, Fairtrade stood out and people felt that it was clear what it indicated. There was confusion about what some of the others meant and, in the case of the Carbon Trust Carbon Footprint label, a desire for more context so that the significance of the level shown was clearer.

15. Which? has made a series of recommendations as to how labelling schemes can better help consumers make more sustainable choices based on this research:

- Schemes need to be streamlined: different schemes cover different issues and so there is scope to bring together different elements, at least for environmental impacts, but possibly for other elements of sustainability too

- Schemes need to be more user-friendly: there needs to be a context provided for people to make sense of the information in a similar way to how nutrition labelling has evolved from presentation of facts to interpretation of those facts relative to your needs.

- Schemes need to be more prominent: Fairtrade stood out partly because of the way that it was designed, but others were lost in among other information on the label.

- Schemes need to communicate in a positive way – many people seemed likely to be more open to using information if they felt good about what they were doing as a result

- Independence is a key aspect of any scheme – people need to have confidence in the information provided and easily be able to compare across different brands. 74 per cent of people interviewed in our survey wanted environmental labelling schemes on foods to be run by bodies that are independent from food retailers and manufacturers.

- Schemes need to be consistent and widely used – people expect consistent communication from government and industry.

- Schemes need to be effectively promoted – labelling schemes need to be part of broader communications about making more sustainable choices.

16. Overall, however, the development of clearer labelling and information about making more sustainable choices needs to be informed and supported by greater clarity around how consumers can make more sustainable choices. There needs to be a common understanding across government, industry and other relevant stakeholders around the priority issues for communication to help inform food choices. The Government did have an ‘integrated advice’ project which was intended to bring together information about how to make healthy and low impact choices. Unfortunately this will no longer be going ahead.

17. Which? has been working with some of the main retailers, manufacturers, non-governmental organisations and academics with an interest in this area, as well as Defra, to try and develop some principles that should guide the provision of information to consumers, with the aim of ultimately developing a more consistent approach to labelling. We initiated this following our consumer research and also in recognition of the need to avoid some of the mistakes with nutrition labelling. This became a very competitive issue that resulted in a proliferation of different labelling schemes, some of which are not based on the evidence of what works best for consumers. There also seems to be a willingness to try and work through the complexities collectively as many organisations and companies are struggling with the challenge of how to inform consumers’ choices in a more meaningful way.

18. We will be continuing these discussions, but it is clear that this is a very difficult issue and there are a range of perspectives around the priority information to communicate (for example, whether specific impacts such as carbon and water can be singled out), whether some of these issues can be combined taking account of both practice-based criteria and outcome-based criteria [4] or whether there needs to be much broader information about sustainability in general. Our survey showed mixed views about the desire for an integrated label of some kind combining different elements of sustainability. Different elements are likely to be more significant for different products compared to others, as well as for different consumers. Research commissioned by Defra also suggests that developing an integrated label would be very difficult practically.

19. Part of the problem is that the evidence base is limited, particularly when it comes to enabling consumers to make choices between individual foods or even food types. However, there are also different views about the priorities and approach needed – including where the balance should lie between informed consumer choice and choice editing by retailers and manufacturers. This is therefore an area where we consider that there is a need for greater government leadership, initially to give broader-based advice around what is a healthy, sustainable diet which can then be translated into more specific information on food labels to enable choices between different products.

20. Agreement needs to be reached on the key issues that can be measured and are a meaningful indicator of the environmental impact of a food to consumers based on current evidence. This can then be supplemented by additional information about broader sustainability issues. Crucially, information has to be put into context so that consumers can easily make comparisons between products. All too often, the need to provide consumers with meaningful information conflicts with the need for retailers and manufacturers to distinguish themselves and gain a competitive advantage based on labelling. As consumers become more aware and engaged with these issues, it is important that they can have confidence in the information that is provided and that a consistent and meaningful approach to labelling is used across the board from the start. Which? will be working with the food industry and others to try and ensure this but the Government – and ultimately the European Union – also have an important role to play.

21. Other lessons also need to be learned from on-going efforts to tackle the barriers to eating healthily. This has demonstrated how concerted and multi-faceted action is needed at all levels in order to improve access, availability and affordability of a choice of healthier products as well as tackling information and labelling and the broader environment in which we make those choices.

22. It is also important to help consumers make more sustainable choices in terms of food waste. UK consumers throw away a huge amount of food. The Waste and Resources Action Programme ( WRAP ) estimates that households in the UK throw away 8.3 tonnes, per year, most of which could have been eaten. WRAP estimate that this avoidable food waste has a value of at least £12 billion, adding around £600 to the average annual family grocery bill. This is a significant economic cost for UK households. WRAP and WWF have recently published a report showing the huge scale of the water and carbon footprint too, on top of the economic cost, with avoidable food waste representing 3 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions plus 243 litres per person per day, which is approximately one and a half times the daily average household water use in the UK.

2 3 . As part of this, further consideration should be given to the extent to which supermarket sales offers contribute to this food waste problem, and therefore to households wasting money, and whether they are in consumers' interests. In 2008 Which? magazine found that three in 10 Which? members said that ‘buy one get one free’ (BOGOF) offers, for example, caused them to throw food away. Which? advises consumers to consider whether they can use the fresh food before taking advantage of such offers, to use the practical tips from WRAP's Love Food Hate Waste campaign ( ), to check best before and use-by dates and to freeze fresh food if they are unable to use it before it goes out of date.


24. We are concerned that while there has been a lot of discussion around the need to ensure sustainable food production and consumption and the evidence of the urgent need to act has been strengthened, there is still a lack of clear Government policy. It is important that there is agreement on the priority actions needed, what best practice looks like and a much clearer vision about what we should be producing and consuming in order to be more sustainable.

25. While actions are needed on many fronts, the Government has an important role to play in providing the direction and resolving some of the complex trade-offs between different aspects of sustainability. It also has to demonstrate that it can ensure that food production develops in line with consumer expectations. A meaningful public debate is therefore needed in order to shape a future food policy.

26. Our research has shown that while consumers are currently not very engaged with these issues, many people would be more open to choosing lower impact foods if it was simple and easy for them to do so. While there is a lot that can be done to ensure the sustainability of foods that are offered by retailers, manufacturers and caterers, it is also important that stakeholders across the supply chain work to develop a consistent, simple and meaningful approach to consumer information and labelling to enable more sustainable food choices.

31 March 2011


[2] 1043 people representative of the UK population were interviewed face to face between 18 th and 22 nd June 2010 from which 854 adults who shop regularly for food were selected.


[4] Defra Research Project on Effective Approaches to Environmental Labelling of Food Products, University of Hertfordshire , February 2011.