The Foodsteps' planetary carbon target: The universal benchmark metric that food businesses need.

Sophie StevensSophie Stevens

By Sophie Stevens

{1} min read

Foodsteps introduces our planetary benchmark for food carbon aimed at helping food businesses align their menus to planetary boundaries, whilst keeping customers engaged.

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Why do we want a planetary benchmark for food?

We’ve been having lots of conversations with our clients looking to understand what the numbers actually mean when it comes to their progress on carbon. They want a tangible goal which can, in a black & white way, signal how far they have to go on their journey - and how far they’ve travelled already. Knowing the destination is fundamental to measuring the speed at which businesses need to act.

Looking at total emissions is a good place to start, but using this as the basis for benchmarking does not allow for fair comparison. It instead favours smaller operators with little to no growth. We believe climate-aligned food should not have to render businesses stagnant. 

As such, establishing a universal target that places businesses on a level playing field will help us depict what “good” actually looks like, in the context of carbon. We want all businesses to aspire to “good food”.

What are our requirements for a planetary benchmark for food?

A planetary benchmark for food should:

  • Align to global climate goals, such as the Paris Agreement, to ensure it contributes positively to the transformation and sustainability of our food system. 
  • Be ambitious but not unachievable, so that businesses are motivated to commit to it. 
  • Be a useful metric for food businesses looking to easily track their progress on food carbon, as well as acting as a clear benchmark against other businesses.
  • Help food businesses achieve their Net Zero goals (in line with FLAG Guidance), and offer a helpful framework for carbon reduction.
  • Be defendable against alternative targets.

So, what is Foodsteps’ planetary benchmark?

The answer is: 1.85 kg CO2e per kilogram of food. 

Based on the current average carbon intensity of food inputted on the Foodsteps Platform last year, businesses will need to make a 58% carbon reduction in order to achieve the planetary benchmark. Reaching this by 2030 would involve a year on year reduction of 10%. As you’ll see below, this involves cutting more emissions sooner, frontloading your reduction journey.

Example Emissions Reduction Framework Aligned to the Foodsteps Planetary Benchmark

How does this compare to SBTi guidance?

Both the SBTi FLAG Guidance and Foodsteps benchmark strive towards reducing industry emissions in line with the Paris Agreement 1.5 degree pledge. Recent FLAG guidance focuses specifically on emissions from land use change, land management and carbon removals on-farm, compared with the Foodsteps benchmark which covers the full life cycle of food from farm to waste.

The FLAG sector approach is advised for demand-side businesses, which encompasses many of our clients. This proposes a near-term reduction of absolute emissions by 30.3% from the baseline year (e.g. from 2020 to 2030). By 2050, the sector approach defines minimum emissions reduction as 72% from the baseline, in addition to a 90% reduction in non-FLAG emissions (i.e. energy and industry).

These figures differ from the Foodsteps planetary benchmark. The FLAG sector approach looks at absolute emissions (kg CO2e) reduction, whereas the Foodsteps target focuses on reducing emissions intensity (kg CO2e/kg food) - similar to the FLAG commodity approach which breaks down reduction goals for a small set of commodities. Year-on-year percentage reduction values set by Foodsteps will thus vary according to the specific business’s starting point, as well as the timeframe within which they opt to meet the target (or that is feasible).

What does a “low carbon” dish look like?

Very low carbon dishes don’t have to look like rabbit food (unless that’s what you’re into!). But it might take a bit more creativity to cook within the constraints of this carbon target. We think this presents a really exciting opportunity to try mixing up some old classics, or coming up with something completely new. 

Some examples of dishes that meet the planetary benchmark include:

  • Beetroot Burger & Fries
  • Butternut & Sage Ravioli
  • Butternut Squash & Sweet Potato Soup
  • Couscous Stuffed Aubergine
  • Jackfruit & Bean Chilli
  • Lentil Bolognese
  • Mushroom & Spelt Stroganoff
  • Nut Roast
  • Roasted Cauliflower Dahl
  • Vegetable Lasagne

Unsurprisingly, these dishes are largely plant-forward, but they don’t scrimp on being hearty and delicious.

While reducing meat and dairy and championing plant-based ingredients represents the basis of our recommendations, some balance is afforded within this target. A menu can still achieve an average carbon intensity of 1.85 kg CO2e per kg while featuring meat and dairy products. 

Here’s an example menu with a 70:30 split between plant- and animal-based dishes, that still meets the Foodsteps planetary benchmark:

  • Aubergine Parmigiana
  • Butternut Squash & Sweet Potato Soup
  • Chicken Burger & Fries
  • Falafel & Quinoa Salad
  • Jackfruit & Bean Chilli
  • Mushroom & Spelt Stroganoff
  • Roasted Cauliflower & Broccoli Soup
  • Root Veg & Lentil Stew
  • Spaghetti Bolognese with Pork
  • Vegetable Lasagne

How does this link to sales?

While it’s all well and good putting low carbon food on the menu, it’s relatively meaningless if these dishes don’t actually sell. A beef bolognese sold 1000 times a week will have a disproportionately big impact, relative to a lentil ragu sold 1000 times a month. The difference in impact here is equivalent to the daily heating of 2,807 average UK homes. Context is therefore key in determining the impact of food that actually ends up on the table.  

Relying on low carbon dishes to sell themselves may not be enough to address this imbalance, unless you have a particularly climate-conscious set of diners. 

So, how can you nudge sales in the right direction?

We have a series of recommendations for boosting sales of low carbon items:

  1. Introduce the Foodsteps carbon label at the point of sale to highlight items that meet the planetary benchmark (as well as those that don’t).
  2. Place low carbon items at the top of the menu, or wherever consumers will see them first.
  3. Ensure you use enticing descriptions for your low carbon items.
  4. Create marketing materials that educate your consumers on the background to food carbon, and its importance.
  5. Set tangible targets for shifting sales mix.
  6. Offer incentives for choosing low carbon food, such as price discounts or loyalty rewards. 

Why have we chosen this as our planetary benchmark? 

Carbon intensity (kg CO2e per kilo of food) is the most useful metric for comparison across different food businesses. We work with a range of businesses - from contract caterers, to restaurant chains, to online retailers. This metric is not tied to business size, or type, and is less vulnerable to external factors like economic recession. Food brands, selling products, can therefore directly compare the average carbon intensity of their food with foodservice, selling meals.

Striving to achieve the Foodsteps planetary benchmark supports businesses in meeting even wider emissions goals. Our target is based on global estimates by the EAT Lancet Commission, which prioritises healthy and sustainable diets for the entire global population - both of which are core to Foodsteps’ values. These estimates fall within the planetary boundary for climate change, meaning food is produced within safe operating limits, as well as aligning to the Paris Agreement 1.5 degree pledge. This is an SBTi requirement for businesses working towards net zero. 

This metric is already easily tracked on the Foodsteps Platform, which highlights the average carbon intensity of food items added by the user, as well as the proportion of items that currently meet the target. (This is also evident in the presence of green labels on the menu). Thus far, 33% of items on the Foodsteps Platform meet the planetary benchmark. This demonstrates that it is an achievable goal, meanwhile inspiring further ambition for the 67% that fall outside of it.

Why are we using this over other metrics?

While each of the below metrics is still useful to help paint a picture of your climate impact, using a target that everyone can align to makes most sense when it comes to establishing a universal benchmark.

Daily Carbon Budget: A daily carbon budget is only really appropriate for meals, as compared to whole products (like a bag of raw pasta) which do not typically form part of an individual’s daily consumption. Consumers are both unlikely and unable to buy all daily meals from a single vendor, meaning it doesn’t really work as a business-level metric. Using such a target may also encourage businesses to cut portion sizes in a bid to cut the carbon footprint. 
Emissions % Reduction: A percentage target for reduction ignores important context about a business - its baseline emissions. Higher emitters will find they can more easily meet reduction targets, whereas those who have already made progress on sustainability could find it much harder. A lower carbon intensity should ultimately pair with absolute emissions reduction to ensure businesses are actually reducing their overall climate impact. This supports compliance with FLAG Guidance, which states that carbon intensity targets will not be permitted if they increase absolute emissions.  
Carbon Intensity of Revenue: Basing the target on the emissions per pound of revenue would disproportionately favour bigger businesses (and likely, higher emitters) who would benefit from diminishing returns. This metric would also be vulnerable to economic external factors.

Why are we using this over other targets?

There’s currently no universally agreed carbon target to which food businesses must align, nor are there many options for independent food carbon targets. After reviewing existing methods, Foodsteps has concluded that these don’t fulfil our requirements for a planetary benchmark. We’ve chosen to use our own system which we believe allows food businesses to effectively pursue ambitious carbon reductions, and simultaneously meet global climate goals.

You can see our system here.

WWF One Planet Plate

The methodology for the WWF’s One Planet Plate (updated in 2019) is most similar to Foodsteps. As such, the targets are pretty well-aligned.

The carbon budget which forms the basis of the WWF target was devised by the Carbon Brief. This budget does not specifically allocate emissions to food production, and so the WWF assumes that 50% of an individual’s carbon budget derives from food. This decision is seemingly arbitrary - or at least, not well explained. Foodsteps’ target is based on a global carbon budget devised specifically for food carbon, largely avoiding these kinds of assumptions.

Inspiration we may choose to take from WWF’s One Planet Plate is the expansion into biodiversity criteria. Foodsteps is keen to understand how best we can incorporate additional environmental metrics into our picture of what “good” looks like.

WWF Food in a Warming World

No context is provided for this target, and we assume that One Planet Plate is a more up to date version of the WWF’s formal standing on food carbon budgets.

WRI Cool Food Pledge

WRI’s Cool Food Pledge is representative of nearly half of the recipes currently on the Foodsteps Platform, and falls under the Foodsteps ‘B’ impact category. This means that it does not align to the Paris Agreement 1.5 degree pledge. 

The Cool Food Pledge is based on reduction goals for 2030, offering one explanation as to why it is more generous than the Foodsteps target, which feeds into 2050 goals. Its usefulness is therefore relatively limited when thinking about meeting longer term goals.

It is also weighted by regional average diet. The average diet in regions like Europe, North America and Oceania will typically be more indulgent (red meats, dairy etc.) and subsequently higher carbon. These regions are thereby afforded a more generous carbon allowance. Particularly in light of the narrative around “loss and damages” at the forefront of COP27, we hold this to be an unfair benchmarking system, hence why we have avoided weighting our “good food” carbon target. 

See how our benchmark compares against others

Footsteps' take on where food businesses should be heading on their low carbon journey, and how we can help them to get there.

Join the companies who already use Foodsteps@ to measure, report and reduce their environmental impact.