Dairy disrupters, Oatly, call for climate labelling to be applied to all UK food and drink products

Oatly’s own research suggests public support for carbon labelling. Their call may pick up the pace of the corporate conversation on climate labelling but policy must keep up so that accuracy is not sacrificed.
October 31, 2023

Oatly’s ‘grey paper’ calls for climate labelling

The UK's food and beverage industry as a whole is being urged to include climate labelling via a campaign started by Oatly. The company already makes its emissions data public and has released a document titled Climate Labelling: Why Not? to argue for others to do the same. Given that "climate labelling isn't a black and white issue where certain foods are good and others aren't," the report has been nicknamed a "grey paper." Oatly intends to collaborate with other businesses to develop a robust system for climate labelling and to exert pressure on the UK government to mandate it.[i] ZCA have previously looked at how climate labelling was highlighted in the UK’s net zero review to the conclusion that its scope should be widened.

The research report makes the case that the public already supports climate labelling; according to a survey done on behalf of Oatly, over half of customers support its implementation, and this number rises to nearly 75% of people under the age of 35. Furthermore, the beverage manufacturer discovered that nearly 50% of respondents were content to forgo high-impact items entirely in favour of a low-carbon diet that involved consuming fewer foods with high emissions. According to Oatly, which has been disclosing the carbon footprint of its UK products on-pack since 2019, the automotive, energy, and tech industries already use comparable product labelling. It is suggested that the food and drink industry follow suit in order to mitigate one of the UK's main sources of carbon emissions.[ii]

In conjunction with the release of their report Oatly has offered "Big Dairy" free, prominent advertising space if they decide to disclose the full carbon impact of their goods.[iii]

Source: Oatly

Whilst Oatly draws the eye, is climate labelling ready for the mainstream 

Oatly’s campaign for climate labelling is just the beginning of potential change, attention has bee grabbed the conversation begun, but who will finish the job? It’s also important to take a step back from Oatly’s overtures to ‘big dairy’ and understand whether climate labelling is founded in objective interest for the betterment of the world’s fight against the climate crisis or whether it’s favour with Oatly is only a product of its potential to give them a competitive edge over competitors.


In answering the question of the potential for climate labelling to do good there are few better placed to do so than Professor Bo Wiedema, an expert from the Danish Centre for environmental assessment. When interviewed by the European Science-Media hub, Professor Wiedema has this to say:


“There is some evidence that climate labelling can affect purchase behaviour. However, unfortunately the effects do not seem very large. More research is needed to determine the actual effects of a large-scale introduction of climate labels. In general, labelling is a policy option that is mainly relevant to correct certain “information asymmetries” between buyer and seller, that is, when the seller has more information than the buyer. But that is not really the case with climate impacts of products. Here, the producers often know as little as the consumers.”[iv]


The final clause of Professor Wiedema’s comment does throw into question quite how accurately ‘big dairy’ could answer Oatly’s call. Whist the alternative milk provider prides itself on it’s climate measuring and has done so since 2020, other milk providers may not be able to as readily and reliably present their climate impact.


Whilst Oatly’s North American Executive Creative director describes the campaign’s ultimate goal as to ‘advocate for transparency’ it's important to be clear that transparency at the cost of accuracy is a cost too high. That’s why it’s crucial that the pace of corporate conversation on climate labelling is matched by legislators.


A consistent climate labelling methodology may be on the horizon

The Food Data Transparency Partnership (FDTP) is an alliance of specialists, industry, and the government. In order to positively impact the food system and promote the production and sale of healthier and more environmentally friendly food and beverages, the FDTP seeks to enhance the quantity, calibre, and comparability of data throughout the food supply chain. The Eco Working Group is crafting specific recommendations for quantifying and disseminating carbon emissions across the food chain.


The organisation is helping the government accomplish the following goals:


·       To standardise the methods and information sources utilised in the assessment and reporting of scope 3 greenhouse gas emissions from food and beverage products.

·       To create an obligatory procedure for optional food eco-labels.


The organisation has about twenty members who have worked with sustainability concerns in the food supply chain and come from civil society and industry.[v]

With a combination of enforced procedural correctness and pressure from disrupters like Oatly, the climate labelling of food and drink could well become more commonplace and as such, the impact of it on consumer behaviour change may be better understood.


[i] Vegconomist- Oatly Calls for Climate Labelling in the UK, Challenges “Big Dairy” to Publish Its Climate Impact

[ii] Business `Green- Oatly campaign calls for mandatory climate labelling on UK food and drink

[iii] Oatly- The Dairy Deal

[iv] European Science-Media Hub- The Challenges of a European Climate label

[v] UK Government- Food Data Transparency Partnership

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Oscar Pusey
Research Analyst

Oscar is a recent graduate with a background in earth science. He is currently studying an MSc focussing on disaster responses, emergency planning and community resilience. His postgraduate research project will assess the link between climate crisis risk perception and attitudes to green energy projects. “Adapting to the climate crisis through the pursuit of net zero requires community engagement and understanding. Zero Carbon Academy’s goals closely align with this approach and I’m excited to have the opportunity to research and communicate a variety of topics relating to our environment and sustainability”.

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