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Chewing on Chipotle's new food emissions labels

Chipotle items and receipt

Chipotle plate and receipt. Courtesy of Shutterstock/Dennizn

Last week, I noted how great it was to see restaurant chains begin to compete on carbon. Just days later, a major new entrant joined that competition when Chipotle announced it would display emissions data to customers ordering from its 2,700 restaurants in North America and Europe. In this case, however, the move has me concerned rather than encouraged.

Let’s start with how it works. When customers order deliveries or pickups, the confirmation screen on the Chipotle app or website displays shows how the order rates on five environmental metrics: carbon emissions; soil health; antibiotic use; water use; and the area of organic land supported. Customers who want to take a deeper dive can head to the Real Foodprint section of the Chipotle site and use a calculator to compare the impact of different menu options.

This sounds great. Now we can add another member to a short but growing list of companies — including Unilever, Panera Bread and Just Salad — that help consumers gauge the climate impact of purchases. Unfortunately not, because the metric that Chipotle shows consumers is highly problematic — so much so that it actually could nudge customers into making less sustainable choices.

Take the example of a burrito bowl containing steak. To calculate the carbon content, Chipotle compares emissions from its supply chain with industry averages supplied by HowGood, a sustainability data provider. The restaurant chain sources just over a quarter of its beef from ranchers who practice rotational grazing, a method known to reduce emissions. Because of that and other initiatives, Chipotle’s beef generates 27 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent for every kilogram of meat, about 18 percent less than the HowGood industry average. That’s why the calculator on the Chipotle site informs customers that the burrito bowl with steak has 181.7 grams "less carbon in the atmosphere."

Chipotle order

There’s a big problem and a small problem here. The small one is that "less carbon in the atmosphere" could easily be read as meaning that the meal is carbon negative. Initial data from some ranches suggests that it might indeed be possible to produce beef with a negative carbon footprint, but that’s not what’s happening in this case. The burrito bowl is only negative relative to industry-standard ranching. To be fair to Chipotle, the text on the site makes this clear. Still, I can easily imagine that a user might fail to notice that.

The more serious issue is that using industry averages as a baseline makes it appear that meals containing beef have good sustainability metrics in an absolute sense.

Adding some regeneratively farmed beef to a supply chain doesn’t make this true. It’s like boasting that you took public transit to the airport for a long-haul flight. You don’t get points for that. Diners who purchase a meal made primarily from conventionally farmed beef shouldn’t be praised for making a climate-conscious choice. If customers want a low-carbon option, they should swap out the beef for chicken or tofu. 

"We want to compare our sourcing to conventional as it shows how much impact can be had by choosing carefully," said Caitlin Leibert, Chipotle’s director of sustainability, when I put these criticisms to her. "Even though we launched the feature with ‘one for one’ comparisons like soy only getting compared to conventional soy rather than against chicken or beef, our methodology will evolve over time. Beef is a high-emissions food, but if you are going to eat beef, then knowing the difference between our beef and beef sourced conventionally is important."

Leibert’s phrasing of "if you’re going to eat beef" is notable. People love burritos and burgers and Bolognese. It’s going to be hard to persuade consumers to give up those dishes and, for now at least, the plant-based alternatives aren’t generally as tasty. This is presumably why Chipotle is eschewing absolute emissions data, which would serve as a nudge towards lower-carbon menu items, and instead betting on regenerative ranching to solve the emissions problem with America’s favorite meat. 

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