Food eco labels, including organic, fairtrade and resource indicators look set to proliferate in the future. Throw in carbon and water footprint measurements – not always with clear and consistent definitions – and you have a difficult and challenging mix of issues for consumers, retailers and producers. This was one of the fascinating highlights of the Sustainable Foods Summit in Amsterdam on June 23-24, where 130 stakeholders came together to debate the impact of the increasingly complex topics of climate change, ethical trading and sustainability on the global food industry.

The conference heard how many large players are already reducing their carbon footprint. Soy producer Alpro plans to become carbon neutral by 2020, Swiss chain Migross has launched many green initiatives including packaging reduction and carbon labeling while Dutch retailer Albert Heijn plans to cut carbon emissions by 20 per cent in four years. And while companies work to reduce their own carbon footprint they are now demanding the same from their suppliers. “It’s not just about our operations we are looking to all our suppliers – it’s an issue for the whole supply chain,” said Cornelia Diethelm, Migross head of issue management and sustainability.

Major corporations are already implementing climate change strategies and 82 per cent of the Global 500 companies were working with the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) in 2010 to improve their carbon management. “We need to create a standard for multinationals so they don’t have to do it differently in every country said Frances Way, CDP’s program director. “For the first time in history we’ve had to decouple greenhouse emissions from economic growth. This has a cascade effect down the supply chain and investors are keeping a close watch on companies’ progress in this area.”

But it is no longer just a question of carbon management. While this has been a primary focus in recent years – attention is now turning to the water footprint, a measure of the appropriation of freshwater resources, measured in volumes of water consumed by a process, product, consumer or producer. Alexandre Harkaly, executive president of Brazilian certifier IBD said “People haven’t woken up to the fact that the water footprint is as fundamental as CO2.” Water is more important than carbon and re-use of water is already a part of good practice”, he added.

Carbon footprint and water footprint logos are adding to the plethora of labels. Organic Monitor’s managing director, Amarjit Sahota, said there were already over 200 labels with more to come. He predicted more dual and multiple eco labels with a combination of organic, fairtrade and resource indicators. British retail giant, Tesco already displays the carbon footprint on 1000 products and existing labels such as Naturland and Ecocert are integrating organic, fairtrade, CSR and biodiversity criteria into their standards. DO-IT has its EcoSocial program while retail chain Hofer Austria combines carbon and organic labeling.

Many companies are developing their own standards without third party certification. Retailers in Australia and Singapore are setting their own standards while Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer in the UK sell only Fairtrade coffee. Will these companies set the benchmark? Can reputable brands command consumer confidence and negate the need for an eco label or seal? Gijs Kuneman, director CLM Research and Advice thinks so – he said big brands could become quality labels in themselves. Safeway’s leading “O” organic brand in the US is already hugely trusted by consumers. The question will be how can consumers trust labels, and can we institutionalize trust or distrust in a label said Sahota.

But some conference participants thought there was no need for more labels as consumers are already confused about existing ones and different measuring systems make life more complicated. Nevertheless, shoppers are becoming more demanding and expectations are different in every country. For example, organic consumers in Holland will presume a product is fairtrade and energy efficient with a low carbon footprint.

There were tough questions too about existing labels and standards. According to Robin Roth, managing director of the German fair trade company GEPA, ethical standards are not helpful. Many are one-sided, imposed by the more powerful partners and sometimes they are regarded as a form of neo-colonialism. They are usually written for the needs of northern markets he said but they should be written by the producers.

With the global population expected to reach nine billion by 2050, the general view from the conference was that in spite of all the positive steps developing standards for organic agriculture, fair trade practices and other actions aimed to reduce the carbon footprint, advanced existing food production and distribution systems are inefficient and much more work on sustainability remains to be done.