Eco-labels have now been awarded under the EC scheme for about 30 products in six groups. In April, four French manufacturers - ITC, Hacot Colombier, Joseph Hacot and Tissage Watrelot - received the first eco-labels for cotton and cotton-polyester bed sheets distributed by the French firm 3 Suisses under the trademark Tertio.
Household laundry detergents were one of four product groups selected for the scheme's pilot criteria-setting process back in 1990. Bitter disputes between the detergents industry and the lead organisation, Germany's federal environment agency UBA, delayed the adoption of the criteria until 1995 (ENDS Report 241, pp 31-32 ).
At the time, UBA estimated that no more than 30% of products in any EC country could qualify for the label, and only around 25% across the EC as a whole. However, Pete Malaise of Ecover believes that the label has little value today because the proportion of eligible products has risen to 85% of those on the EC market.
In May, Reckitt's French company was awarded the label for its compact powder household detergent, sold in plastic refill packaging under the brand name Maison Verte in France and Down to Earth in the UK. The product is also sold under the name Casa Verde in Spain, but not in refill packs, while a liquid version is sold in Scandinavia under the name Graany.
Down to Earth was launched in the UK in 1991, while the compact detergent sold in refills was launched in France and the UK in 1993/4. In each country, the product accounts for less than 3% of the laundry detergents market.
According to Philippe Dufriche, Reckitt's European R&D Manager for Environmentally Friendly Products, the product had to be reformulated to qualify for the eco-label. "We had to increase the amount of one ingredient and reduce another, but we did not have to remove any," he told ENDS.
The firm's Marketing Manager for Environmentally Friendly Products, Agns Rouffiac, said that Reckitt applied for the label because "we have an ecological standpoint but people don't believe we are sincere - they want proof." Mr Dufriche added that Reckitt wants the label to "prove that we can manufacture green products which have the same level of performance as the big brands. This is very important, especially in the UK, where distributors are not interested in green products."
Reckitt also intends to apply for the EC label for its Graany liquid detergent. This would be an unusual step in a market where virtually all laundry detergents bear one of two local eco-labels - the Nordic countries' White Swan and the Falcon label of the Swedish Nature Conservation Society.
Reckitt also has plans to apply for the EC eco-label for other product groups, such as toilet and household cleaners, once criteria have been agreed.
Mr Malaise told ENDS that Ecover "probably" will not apply for the label because it would be a "downward step" for the company. But he believes that the two dominant producers, Lever and Procter & Gamble, "will probably apply for the label for one of their products if Reckitt's sales go up."