As food retailers and manufacturers work their way toward global sustainability, lofty goals abound. But businesses may find the road to this “consumer eco-topia” to be more complex than originally expected, according to a global food company executive who spoke this week at the Institute of Food Technologists’ Annual Meeting & Food Expo.

Carbon footprints can often rank high in consumers’ consciousness, and some retailers have considered the idea of requiring carbon footprint labels on all products, according to Jan Kees Vis, director of sustainable agriculture at Unilever. While the proposition could be effective for motivating suppliers to reduce environmental impact, the proposal raises the inevitable question of just how useful the information would be to consumers.

“[A retail chain in Europe] aimed to have the carbon footprint labels on all products, but you have to ask: Once you’ve done that, what will consumers really do with the information?” Vis said. The logistics involved in such an undertaking would be significant.

“Without any kind of international methodology for measuring a carbon footprint, such labeling would involve a huge undertaking, and it also raises the question of whether [a carbon footprint] is even a good proxy for energy sustainability,” Vis said.

As businesses move toward improved sustainability, questions of what value it has to consumers—and how much they’re willing to spend in support of the cause—will be repeated.

Unilever’s efforts to improve sustainability, as described by Vis, are to eventually buy all of its raw materials from only sustainable sources.

The company has aligned itself with the Rainforest Alliance, with a goal of having all Lipton Tea products certified by the alliance’s environmental codes by the year 2015 (and by 2010 in Europe). The company plans to start with the certification of all East African tea producers.  

Such alliances with academics and organizations involved in sustainable practices are critical for any businesses looking to make significant sustainability efforts, Vis added.  

“It’s really a ‘do not try this at home’ situation,” he said. “Many of these applications are well beyond what companies are prepared to deal with, and you need to link with scientists, academics and others who really know what they’re doing.”