ISO14021 pushed as basis for implementing green claims code

A draft international standard on self-declared environmental claims, ISO14021, is likely to be promoted by the Government as the main source of guidance on implementing the voluntary UK code of practice on product green claims. As well as describing commonly used terms, such as recyclability, the standard sets out a robust evaluation and verification methodology which may eventually lead to the certification of claims.

A voluntary code of practice covering environmental claims made on products or their packaging was unveiled by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) in February (ENDS Report 277, pp 29-30 ).

The code says that claims should be "capable of being supported by scientific evidence which can be independently verified," and specifically mentions the draft standard, ISO14021, as a source of detailed guidance on making and verifying such claims. The standard is out for voting until the end of September and is expected to be adopted by the end of the year without any major changes.1The DETR recently convened a working group to explore whether ISO14021 could help businesses implement the code, or whether separate guidance needs to be drawn up. Early indications are that the latter will not be felt necessary, and that it would be wise for trade associations to encourage their members to familiarise themselves with ISO14021.

Under the draft standard, the claimant would be responsible for evaluation and providing data needed for verification of the claim, prior to making the claim. Comparative claims against a previous product or process or that of another company:

  • Could only be made using a published standard or recognised test methods, some of which are listed in an annex.

  • Could only be made against comparable products serving similar functions and currently in the same marketplace.

  • Would have to be quantified and calculated over an appropriate period, typically 12 months, using the same units of measurement, and based on the same functional unit.

    A claim would only be considered verifiable if verification was possible without access to confidential business information. Even if the claimant chose not to release the necessary information to the public, it would have to be disclosed on request "at a reasonable time and place, to any person seeking to verify the claim."

    The minimum information to be documented and retained by the claimant would include:

    Identification of the standard or test method used.

  • Documentary evidence where verification cannot be made by testing the finished product.

  • Test results, where these are necessary for verification.

  • The identity of any relevant independent testing body.

  • Evidence that the claim took into consideration all relevant aspects of the product life-cycle.

  • Evidence that the claim was relevant to the area where the corresponding environmental impact occurs.

  • Where the claim involved a comparison with other products, a description of the test methods used and results of any tests of those products.

    The draft standard also provides interpretations and usage qualifications for selected common terms. An example is recycled content, which must be expressed as a proportion by mass. Scrap material fed back into the same manufacturing process is excluded. Only pre-consumer material - defined as that which is diverted from the waste stream during a manufacturing process and subsequently used in a different process - and post-consumer material can be considered, with claimants free to decide whether to indicate which type has been used.

    If a symbol is used to indicate recycled content, it must be the Mobius loop with a percentage value next to it. Without a percentage figure, the Mobius loop will be the only approved symbol for recyclability.

    The standard adds that "the recycled content" and "recyclable" claims, "in particular, should be used with discretion," as material recycling is only one of a number of waste prevention strategies, and that a higher percentage of recycled content does not necessarily imply a lower environmental impact. However, the definition of "recovered energy" does not include a similar disclaimer.

    Overall, ISO14021 has been written in a way that lends itself to certification, and some observers feel this could be the next step. If certification became a norm of doing business in certain sectors, such as those most influenced by public procurement, it could develop into a powerful environmental tool. The momentum could come from certain countries treating certification as if it was a legal requirement; conversely, exporters could seize upon certification as a way to prove they meet the standard.

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