Wednesday, January 6, 2010

ENVIRONMENTAL POLITICS: The Complex World of Ecolabels and Standards

By Dylan Tanner

Ecolabels began to emerge in the late 1980s in response to a growing wave of consumer preference for environmentally friendly goods. The regulators, the advertising regulatory bodies and industry realized that ad-hoc, self-declared "environmentally-friendly" labels would result in fraud and consumer distrust. The rationale for the creation of voluntary ecolabels and their associated standards was to formalize and legitimize voluntary (i.e. beyond legal requirements of) efforts by business to create more environmentally friendly products and organizations.

The US set up its third-party audited Green Seal program in 1989 which meets the US EPA's criteria on third-party audited standards. Similarly the EU legitimized the emerging ecolabelling initiatives by the EU Ecolabel in 1992. This now covers a range of products and in theory should be harmonized throughout the EU Member States. Japan similarly has its own national scheme.

However, because many sectors and countries feel their pre-existing systems and standards were not fully covered by these harmonization efforts in the US and the EU, national, sector and issue specific standards and ecolabels have continued to emerge.

For example, Germany's Blue Angel, which emerged in 1978 as the world's first ecolabel, continues to be used in the country. Sector specific ecolabels which remain popular include theForest Stewardship Council's FSC label, the Marine Stewardship Council's label for sustainable seafood and the Fairtrade label for ethically sourced commodities and food. Hundreds more exist at the national level in Japan, China, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and North America.

Many follow the International Standards Organization's guidelines on third-party audited standards, ISO 14020. New issues are now emerging, overlapping on the environmental issue for which standards and consumer driven labels are being created. The SA 8000 is a popular business to business standard for social accountability, which in effect attempts to measure the impact a company's activities have on local communities and workers, mostly in the developing world.

Given this huge number of differing brands, types and systems of labeling and standardization, consumers are challenged to understand which standard applies to what issue and how to recognize the brand. The leading standards such as the US EPA's Energy Star, Green Seal and Germany's Blue Angel and Sweden's Nordic Swan have a good deal of credibility and recognition. However, for organic products, for example, consumers complain they are overwhelmed by the number of claims and standards out there.

From industry's view point, many different standards presents challenges for adhering to multiple systems and also for overseas trade. In theory, a national, rather than internationally agreed standard for business represents a potential barrier to trade. The World Trade Organization, busy with other issues, has not made national environmental labels and business standards a priority in terms of harmonization and compliance to WTO rules.

The International Standards Organization exists to provide guidelines or "meta standards" on which national systems are based, and it also the assurance of the ubiquitous ISO mark. In the environmental field, the ISO 14000 series emerged in the early 1990s covering a range of eco-issues. However this international meta-standard system exists alongside a level of national standards dealing with specific issues and sectors, such as the FSC standard for wood products.

Leading retailers, global corporate buyers and some of the leading standards bodies themselves have responded to this market confusion by several initiatives. The ISEAL Alliance was formed in 2000 as a coalition of some leading standards bodies and now counts FSC, Fairtrade and MSC among its members. Among other things, membership in ISEAL attempts to represent an acceptable level for a variety of issues relating to the creation and maintenance of a third-party audited international standards system.

The Global Ecolabelling Network was set up in 1994 to "improve, promote, and develop the ecolabelling of products and services". In practice it is a loose alliance of national ecolabelling schemes. was established in 2006 as a project to map out and classify the ecolabelling systems in place around the world. More recently, the International Trade Council established a Web based project to map out ecolabells and environmental standards in a comprehensive way to provide a tool to government and business buyers in choosing an appropriate one to use in their procurement programs. These efforts, however, do not solve the issue of how to avoid the confusion and overlap presented by multi-levels of standards.

Of particular concern is a national system of standards making and certification emerging in China, a market where arguably third party audited environmental labels and standards are most crucial to trade. The author understands that an announcement is imminent from the Chinese government on the issue of alignment of its national system with the more established systems in place globally, a trend which will draw a sigh of relief from weary environmental procurement officers in large companies.

Dylan Tanner is an eco-entrepreneur and writer who founded the newsletters Asia and China Environmental Reviews and has been writing about environmental and social trends within a business context for fifteen years. His latest venture is a B2B directory of environmentally and socially certified companies and other certified suppliers.

Article Source:

No comments:

Post a Comment