Environmental sustainability is an increasingly important factor for both producers and consumers within food systems; this is evidenced within changes to manufacturing processes, marketing campaigns, legislation and consumer buying trends, as well as being voiced by both industry and consumers within research, conferences and government policy such as the National Food Strategy for England. It is however, a term that due to increased use, arguably causing it to become a buzzword that contributes to greenwashing, has become both unclear and disputed in its definition within different contexts.
Within food systems, it is often difficult to decipher how sustainable a product is due to lacking, inconsistent or conflicting information. It is therefore challenging to understand what constitutes sustainable consumption. One way of communicating information surrounding the environmental impact of food products is via packaging, which already offers a considerable amount of nutritional, allergic and contact information in the UK. Whilst an array of so called ‘eco labels’ exist, highlighting specific environmental factors such as those relating to recycling, Fairtrade and organic products, the origin of produce and the standards by which a company has abided when capturing or harvesting it, the diversity of these labels makes it difficult to reach a conclusion as to the overall environmental impact of one product compared to another. Research is currently being undertaken to create a single ‘score’ that encompasses an array of different environmental factors that reduces this challenge, e.g., using life cycle assessment and the European Commission’s Environmental Footprint calculation model, however the extent to which consumer perceptions has been considered within the creation of these scores is not currently clear. Given that the role of this information is to inform the consumer, it can be argued that such perceptions (e.g., which environmental factors consumers feel influence their buying decisions) are vitally important to include in the creation of environmental impact information on packaging. This consumer-specific input would help create an informed, targeted, comprehensible and accessible way of communicating through packaging, which would benefit consumers but also producers by gaining a clear understanding of where best to focus their attention regarding the sustainability of their products.
Furthermore, this research aims to understand how packaging can be best used as a communication tool for the environmental impact of food products within the UK. By consulting consumers and understanding which factors to prioritise in packaging information, it aims to connect producers and consumers through information sharing that leads to increased trust between both parties, more accessible environmental information and therefore increased awareness surrounding the sustainability of different food products. This will provide both producers and consumers with the necessary information to work towards more sustainable consumption within their own context (where possible, considering external limitations and barriers) due to clear, transparent and consistent access to sustainability measures of food products.