Why calculate a Climate Footprint “from cradle to shelf”?

You have decided to communicate the climate footprint of your food product to your consumers – great call, it’s a win-win. So, what data do you need? In lieu of regulations, you, as a food producer, may have to answer this – but frankly, you should not have to. A scope the food industry frequently struggles to agree on is which stages of the product’s life should be included?

As any data selection, the right data set depends on 1) what data you can have, and 2) what you want your analysis to do – and that is all you should decide. Since you are investigating the topic, we assume that the goal of your analysis is to lower your climate footprint and gain more customers while doing it. In this case, the scope that serves your goal is cradle-to-shelf – and that’s the scope you need to 1) lower your climate footprint, and 2) accurately communicate it to your customers. Do you still want to know why? We see you, we appreciate you, and we relate. Let us explain.

Cradle-to-shelf includes the climate footprint of a food product from the natural resource stage to refinement, packaging, and distribution; Essentially, the calculation includes the life cycle of the product until the point it hits the shelves of the grocery store.

What do I win with cradle-to-shelf?

You win your consumer’s trust and choice. To start with, when consumers see the climate footprint of a product, they do not assume that their actions post-shelf are included. And consumers can only ‘assume’ because to this day, there are no regulations, therefore consumers don’t have predefined expectations. This is a problem in itself: Lacking a standard means lacking the grounds to compare, form a solid criterion, and select (and it is very well established that sustainability is a selection criterion for consumers).

While we’re on the topic of standardization… It is evident that the industry needs a standard and it will happen sooner rather than later. The main reason food producers as well as consumers need this is because they need a level playing field to compare and select. For this goal also, cradle-to-shelf provides the most accurate, controllable, and actionable set of data to build a fair comparison upon.

Secondly, you win control, accuracy, and a level ground for decisions. Cradle-to-shelf falls 100% within the scope a food producer knows and can impact. When a food producer selects this type of data set, their final climate footprint number is as precise as they come. Consequently, the areas and actions where the biggest impact in lowering the footprint are sharply refined and highlighted – a lot of fancy words to say that you can easily and quickly spot exactly what you can do as a food producer to lower your climate footprint.

All in all, cradle-to-shelf is the data you can have as well the data you need to lower your climate footprint and communicate it to your customers truthfully and in terms they understand. Mission accomplished!

Still curious about the alternative? Let’s investigate that too. The alternative scope is Cradle-to-grave, which includes all stages in the production process from natural resource to refinement, distribution, as well as what happens when the consumer picks up the product, i.e., consumption and disposal. In other words, your cradle-to-grave climate footprint would include the entire lifecycle of the product.

What is it good for?

The cradle-to-grave approach gives a holistic picture of how your product contributes to the global footprint. If the goal of your analysis is a general ‘know what’ of your climate footprint, then cradle-to-grave is a relevant data set. This is usually the goal of researchers and the reason why cradle-to-grave is selected as a scope for their goal. However, this analysis is void of actionability, which misses the goal of the food industry.

What do I lose with cradle-to-grave?

To put it simply, you lose an accurate description of your reality and the opportunity to communicate it truthfully. There are simply too many assumptions in calculating your climate footprint cradle-to-grave. Food producers have virtually no control over what happens to their product after it is picked off the shelf. The only way to include the post-shelf data is to guess it to a degree that is far off the line of scientific integrity.

Think of the lifecycle of a bag of frozen vegetables. To calculate the shelf-to-grave part, one would need to include how the bag will be transported home from the grocery store – by foot, bicycle, car? If so, what kind of car? What kind of electricity does the host home have – Renewable, fossil fuels, a mix? How long will the bag stay in the freezer? How many other products cohabit the freezer? What kind of stove will the vegetables be cooked in? Will the packaging be recycled or disposed in the overall trash? These are simply too many variants assumed to conclude to a final footprint that is actionable or fairly comparable. Moreover, the spectrum of possible answers to these questions can make a rather large difference to the end-calculation of the climate footprint.

Secondly, you may lose opportunities to lower your footprint. Since the consumers’ actions are included in the final climate footprint, food producers may find many areas of improvement in the estimated shelf-to-grave calculation and overlook what is actually in their power to influence: cradle-to-shelf. On the other side of the coin, consumers may also focus on what they can do to lower their footprint of the product, which is a great initiative – BUT! It shifts the focus away from where the biggest impact potential lies: The food production process itself.

Let’s recap

We hear you, that’s a lot of information, so maybe circling back helps at this point: What is the right scope to approach the calculation of your climate footprint – cradle-to-grave or cradle-to-shelf? As a food producer, you want to win by lowering your climate footprint and gaining more customers with your authenticity. The first steps are to know your climate footprint and understand it – the first steps are not to take methodological decisions. For you, the cradle-to-shelf approach is the most actionable data set to comprehend what is in your power – and act on it!