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Counting carbs

Counting carbs

The food system needs to change drastically if the world is to reach net zero. Emissions reporting by food companies is improving – but not fast enough.

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Counting carbs

Britain’s biggest food companies are getting better at reporting emissions from their supply chains.

Twenty-six of the 30 biggest food and drink companies in the UK are now reporting some form of Scope 3 emissions – the emissions that come from supply chain and customers, according to analysis conducted for the Tortoise Better Food Index.

Last year, only 20 of the companies in the Better Food Index reported this component of their emissions. 

The Index scores food companies on key sustainability rankings ranging from environmental impact to nutrition, social impact to affordability – to come up with a comprehensive picture of how well food businesses are doing to serve customers and the planet. Findings of the Index will be published on the Tortoise website today.

So what? For companies grappling with the task of reducing their emissions, reliably measuring “Scope 3” is often the most daunting part. But it’s essential if the system is to change. For most companies, it’s most of their carbon footprint. In the food sector, it’s typically 90 per cent.

For a food company, Scope 3 involves every step of the journey that gets food from a farmer to a customer’s fork – except for their direct emissions, Scope 1, and the emissions from the power they buy, Scope 2.

By the numbers:

4 – companies in the Index that do not disclose Scope 3 emissions, including 2 Sisters Food Group, one of the UK’s largest chicken suppliers. 2 Sisters did not respond to a request for comment.

9 – companies in the Index that do not appear to be reporting realistic Scope 3 emissions  – giving figures that are significantly lower than their Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions combined.

0.23 per cent – fraction of total emissions reported as Scope 3 by McCain Foods, which makes frozen chips. 

McCain estimates that 70 per cent of its emissions are Scope 3, but only reports what is mandatory. The company said this is “just business travel, not the full picture of Scope 3 emissions”.

Data. One of the challenges for food companies is the quality of data available at farm level, and the resources needed to accurately measure emissions from agricultural suppliers. Food businesses often have long supply chains and outsource operations to suppliers that might not measure their own emissions. 

Accounting. A further problem lies in how land use changes are accounted for. Recent deforestation, as in Brazil, is counted as part of emissions, but not historic transformation of the environment, as in the US. This can drive companies that come under investor or consumer pressure to switch suppliers rather than tackle emissions.

First mover disadvantage. Reporting comprehensive Scope 3 emissions can draw unwelcome attention to the first mover, so companies have an incentive to under-report.

Mike Barry, former director of sustainable business at Marks and Spencer, said that an understanding of the need to measure and act on Scope 3 emissions was starting to percolate across the sector. But he added: “The collective approach lacks ambition, underestimating both the pace of change that’s coming as well as the need for greater value chain partnership.”

Feeding the UK’s growing population while hitting climate goals will require the production of more food at a lower level of emissions. Greater transparency around company’s supply chains is just the start of that process.

But Tortoise analysis finds that emissions from companies in the Index – just taking Scope 1 and Scope 2 into account – have gone up in proportion to revenue. 

Emissions intensity – tonnes of CO2 generated for every £1 million in sales – rose 5.5 per cent compared to last year. There’s a long way to go.

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