21 Aug 2020

Carbon Impacts of Food and Beverage Products

Posted in: Product carbon footprints

Carbon impacts of food and beverage products – a how-to guide on carbon measurement

Manufacturing goods generates a significant amount of carbon emissions, and food and beverage producers are no exception. Increasingly producers are looking at the carbon impacts of the food and drinks they manufacture in response to consumer demand for responsible products. Many producers also want to play their part in the climate change solution and help drive down carbon emissions.

If you really want to reduce the climate impact of your products, or even strive for a carbon neutral product, how do you go about it?

The process can seem overwhelming, but we’ve put together the key tips for you to get started.

[Also see: Webinar - Carbon Zero Products with Fonterra and Lion Co]

Fermentist - New Zealand's first carbon zero beerSnowberry Skincare reduces product carbon emissions

What do you want to achieve and be able to say about it?

It’s important to consider, right from the start, what you want to achieve when looking at the climate impacts of your products.

Do you want to align with international best-practice?

If you want to be confident in your numbers, and know where to focus your efforts to have the greatest impact, then you should aim for a product carbon footprint in line with international standards, like PAS 2050 or ISO 14067. This will help you develop a comprehensive assessment of the footprint, so you can identify the ‘hot-spots’ across the supply-chain and distribution. Ongoing verified measurement against a consistent standard also means when you implement initiatives to reduce, you can track your results.

Do you want to go further and offset the impacts of your products with carbon credits?

If carbon neutrality is your aim, then you’ll need to follow those international standards, and consider your carbon credit selection, by choosing high quality carbon credits that align with your organisation’s goals and values.

Do you want to shout about your climate responsibility?

If marketing is an important pillar in your sustainability plans, you’ll need to get your measurement (and offsets, if going neutral) independently verified or certified against an international standard. This will allow you to substantiate your claims with confidence under advertising and marketing legislation (see, for example, New Zealand’s Commerce Commission’s Environmental Claims Guide). With Toitū carbonreduce or Toitū carbonzero certification, you also get an independent endorsement mark to support your communications.

Committing to a robust measurement method and combining that with ambitious action means you’re well on your way to real climate action.

Where do you start?

First, you need to consider where to draw the line. With products, there are generally two approaches; the boundary comes down to whether you are measuring the final end product or just one of the ingredients.

Cradle-to-Grave ApproachToitū product carbon footprinting emissions inventory

Used if you manufacture a product that reaches a final consumer, like a bottle of wine or a box of breakfast cereal.

This is a holistic approach which measures  carbon across the full life cycle of the product. The footprint includes emissions associated with inputs (such as raw materials for manufacture), the manufacturing itself, and downstream emissions like how the consumer uses and disposes of the product at the end of its life.

For example, a chocolate bar manufacturer would measure carbon associated with growing and sourcing the cocoa and any other ingredients. Next they measure the carbon associated with the manufacturing process for turning the raw ingredients into the chocolate bar, and producing the packaging. Finally, the footprint would account for carbon associated with distributing the bars to shops, purchase by the customer, and disposal of the packaging.

Cradle-to-Gate Approach

Used if you manufacture an ingredient or bulk product used in a wider product supply chain, such as a glass bottle for wine or nuts added to a breakfast cereal.

In this approach, the measurement scope stops once your product changes ownership. Carbon emissions from the product beyond this are not included.

For example, a nut producer that supplies other businesses to include in their third party products, would measure the carbon associated with growing the nuts and harvesting. They would also include any processing, packaging and distribution until the point the nuts are purchased by the next manufacturer, say for a muesli bars or breakfast cereals. Their measurement under cradle-to-gate would end there.

In some cases, a product manufacturer may well measure both boundaries for a single product type. Why? Let’s look again at the nut supplier example.

  • For the nuts sold as ingredients to a cereal company (cradle-to-gate), the boundary is smaller, it may be an easier piece of work to measure and work on reducing. There is a marketing advantage as the cereal producer may choose to purchase these nuts specifically because of the carbon management, locking in a lucrative contract. But it is worth nothing the marketing benefit doesn’t reach end consumers - even if the nuts are a Toitū carbonzero certified product, the Toitū product mark couldn’t be used on the final box of breakfast cereal seen by a customer.
  • For the branded nuts sold at the supermarket (cradle-to-grave), the boundary expands and the final lifecycle stages are also included. This footprint may take a bit more effort to include those final emissions but the nut supplier can communicate its carbon work directly to the marketplace, potentially locking in a lucrative market share as the responsible choice.

Pick your time frame

A footprint covers a specific period of time, usually a year, and it is up to you to determine the most appropriate start and stop of each cyclical year of measurement. Most choose a measurement period that aligns with either their financial year, the calendar year, or an annual production cycle (such as for wine).

Once you’ve got your measurement period, then set your base year. Usually this is the first year you start actively measuring – where you get reliable, comprehensive data. But as this will be the basis for tracking emissions reductions over time, also think about how typical the selected base year is as a point of comparison. If you are getting started now, this might mean looking at the 2019 period as a typical example, knowing that 2020 will have an unusually high or low result due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Measuring product emissions

Get the data

Now it’s time to find out where your emissions are coming from and collect the data. Under each area of the product diagram above, identify all your activities, your suppliers and detail on the distribution and packaging. Remember, we’re looking across the full lifecycle: ingredient and material inputs, production, distribution, storage, use, and waste disposal.

Here’s an example for a beer product. Upstream activities include sourcing the ingredients like malt and hops. Core activities include the energy and waste associated with brewing, fermenting and packing. Then downstream activities include the transportation to point of sale, refrigeration and disposing of the packaging.

The Fermentist Beer's emission sources across product life cycle.

Image: Lifecycle diagram for The Fermentist's carbonzero certified Kiwi Pale Ale

Once you’ve outlined these activities, you can then start measuring the data associated with them. If you are working with Toitū on your carbon footprint, we’ll help you map out all the sources you need. To fill in the details, an easy place to start is with your invoices. For instance, look for kilowatt hours (kWh) on your electricity invoices to know how much electricity is used in any processing or even pre-processing. How many kilograms of waste are sent to landfill? Focussing on the biggest emission sources across all the product stages helps focus data collection efforts on the most material aspects.

For any emissions source, primary data is best – this means going back to the source of truth, like a meter or a supplier invoice. Occasionally primary data is just not possible for operations out of your control (such as where a raw ingredient is grown by an external supplier), so secondary data may be needed, such as a calculation spreadsheet in the absence of invoices. When secondary data is used this can lower the overall accuracy of the footprint. Too much secondary data could highlight an opportunity for data sharing and collaboration within the supply chain, which could lead to wider reductions as well.

Next steps – set goals, manage well and communicate

If you’ve got to this point, you’re doing great! Keep going as this is where the real action happens.

Setting goals or targets for carbon reduction can really set the bar for your ambition. This webinar recap can help you set targets that are aligned with the best climate science. We encourage everyone to make sure they’re setting targets that are real and meaningful to the atmosphere, hence why we support the Science Based Targets Initiative.

Managing your emissions well is what is going to get you to your goals. We’ve put together a quick guide on finding carbon reduction opportunities.

To ensure you continue striving for reductions, and inspire others along the way, communicate your journey! Telling consumers your carbon reduction or carbon neutrality story, initiatives and goals, helps them understand that you’re taking credible action for the environment. We’ve a few great articles here, here and here on this topic.

Start your food or beverage carbon reduction or carbon neutrality journey with us

At Toitū Envirocare, we are here to help you make sure you reduce the climate impacts of your food or drink products.

Our technical experts help you identify what data you need to measure your greenhouse gas inventory. Our tools and resources support you to set real and achievable goals to manage your emissions. We then arrange an independent audit to verify your result is accurate and complete. You can optionally choose from a selection of carbon credits to mitigate your emissions. After your hard work you will receive globally recognised certification logos to help you market your achievements. The annual cycle sustains a journey of continual reduction.

Get in touch

Want to see product footprinting in action?

Watch our recorded webinar with Lion Co and Fonterra (24 August)

Carbon Zero Products