Colruyt, Lidl and Carrefour test the Eco-Score – Sustainability can be simplified, but who determines the calculation model?

The Eco-Score has been purposefully designed to resemble the Nutri-Score food choice logo developed for the French government. With five colored leaves (dark green, green, yellow, orange and red) and a letter from A to E, the logo makes clear at a glance the extent to which a product pollutes the environment. Both food choice logos are originally French. The methodology is public and was developed by Eco2, Yuka and Open Food Facts, among others. It was launched in January 2021. In Switzerland, years earlier, an ‘Eco-Score’ had arisen from the restaurant industry that is even more similar to the Nutri-Score.

The Belgian supermarket formula Colruyt decided to be the first to work with the colored leaves of the Eco-Score, in March 2021. The company foresaw that the environmental impact of foodstuffs would become an important criterion for consumer choice. The Dutch Lidl and Carrefour followed later. Lidl has now extended a first pilot.

No transparency yet
Two aspects determine the final score: factors that influence the environment during the product’s life cycle on the one hand, and additional pluses and minuses such as transport, certifications and recyclability of packaging on the other. It is not the individual products, but 2,500 product categories that have been made transparent in terms of environmental impact. For example, the logo claims to make the environmental impact of meat and dairy comparable.

Marjolein Hanssen, consumer foods analyst at Rabobank, says in VMT that the large-scale introduction of the logo will lead to direct competition between companies in the field of sustainability, but not only that. In contrast to the Nutri-Score, where all information is already on the packaging, there is much less transparency with regard to the environmental impact. This should grow as more companies start working with the Eco-Score.

The fear of calculation models based on the worldviews of experts and partial perspectives is the reason for a European citizens’ initiative that was officially registered on 30 June

One instead of many labels

According to research firm Innova Market Insights, consumers need a single label that reflects the total environmental impact of a product. Multiple labels at once are confusing because consumers want a simple yes/no answer to the question of whether a product is responsible. Only a small part of the food products has an Eco-Score because not all parameters for the score are public. In the case of the Nutri-Score, this is easier because an algorithm can easily determine a score based on the ingredient declaration. According to Innova, 77% of foods already have a Nutri-Score.

In 2020, the Agency for Ecological Transition of the French government asked for inspiration for logos that should make it easy for consumers to recognize sustainable products. This is where the Planet-Score emerged from a biological perspective. The logo was tested among the public in the summer of 2021. Like the Eco-Score, the Planet-Score gives one score, but it also specifies the performance of a product in terms of the use of pesticides, animal welfare and the effects on biodiversity and climate change. And, as in the case of Eco-Score, there was also another ‘Planet-Score’, specially made for the packaging industry.

Healthcare: different starting points and perspectives

While supermarkets are already implementing the Eco-Score, other logos are also being developed. Although the Eco-Score and the Planet-Score are both based on calculation models and data from the French Agency for Ecological Transition, this is a concern. Based on different assumptions and values ​​of variables, conflicting calculation models and logos based on them will develop. While one considers dairy harmful and the consumption of chicken much more climate-friendly, other experts argue against this based on other principles, as shown in this recent Dutch scientific study by WUR experts. A quick check of the Eco-Score algorithm makes me suspect that the Dutch experts do not agree with the dairy score of the Eco-Score.

The fear of calculation models based on the world views of experts and partial perspectives is the reason for a European citizens’ initiative that was officially registered on 30 June. It calls for the introduction of one European eco-score (with a completely different logo) to avoid confusion and proliferation. The citizens’ initiative began collecting signatures at the end of July 2021. Of the 1 million signatures required, only 4,000 have been received at the moment. There does not seem to be much interest among the public in the standardization of what we will soon be allowed to eat in good conscience. Yet that standard – in the form of logos – will determine what we will eat and how it is made, as we wrote here before.