Last year, the Commission ordered studies into the feasibility of setting eco-labelling criteria for three new product groups - passenger vehicles, PCs, and textile products other than T-shirts and bed linen, for which criteria have already been drawn up (ENDS Report 257, pp 26-27 ).
Working group meetings on PCs and textiles were held in Brussels in June. But work on vehicles has been dropped on grounds of complexity.
Presenting its feasibility study on PCs, Atlantic Consulting argued that institutional buyers such as governments and educational authorities want an EC eco-label, while their IT suppliers would prefer a single European label to those already in existence under schemes such as the Nordic White Swan and the German Blue Angel.
Green procurement legislation, existing eco-labels and growing customer inquiries about PCs' environmental performance suggest that significant demand for "greener" models exists in the Nordic states, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands. Atlantic admits that the market share of "eco-conscious" buyers is unknown, but may account for up to 10% of the market.
A few PC suppliers have responded to this demand. Two producers, IBM and Siemens-Nixdorf, have introduced "green" models. According to the study, Siemens continues to promote these, but IBM - a staunch opponent of the EC eco-label - has dropped the approach.
Atlantic argues that the EC eco-label offers economic advantages. Manufacturers currently answer thousands of requests for environmental information each year, and the industry is seeking a standard format for reporting environmental information.
The study says that buyers could benefit from minor savings in energy costs and potentially significant savings in disposal charges if products are designed to take account of end-of-life factors such as disassembly or toxic substances.
The computer industry, however, shares some other sectors' fundamental objections to the EC eco-label - that it is aimed at the "greenest" 20% of the market alone, criteria are set by governmental bodies rather than industry, and product performance is verified by independent bodies.
The industry is throwing its weight behind the Energy Star label created by the US Environmental Protection Agency and now used in Australia and New Zealand as well. In the USA, 75% of PCs and 93% of monitors on the market met the criteria in 1995, according to the market research company Dataquest.
"We don't want challenging thresholds," said Hans-Jochen Lueckefett, Hewlett Packard's Government Affairs Manager and a representative of EUROBIT, the trade body for IT equipment suppliers. On energy efficiency, for example, he argued that a relatively low reduction target would achieve the biggest overall saving because more manufacturers would adopt it than the tougher criteria under an eco-label.
Third party verification is also opposed because it is "time-consuming and expensive", said Mr Lueckefett. The Blue Angel scheme's application period has been cut from a few months to a few weeks, but he complained that this is still too long.
The Commission itself is divided on the issue. Its Environment Directorate, DGXI, is leading discussions on the eco-label, but the Energy Directorate, DGVII, is seeking permission for the Energy Star label to be used in the EC. According to Mr Luekefett, Commission officials at the meeting were unable to explain why it is supporting both labels.
EUROBIT disputes Atlantic's conclusion that an EC eco-label could make life simpler for manufacturers. "National schemes will not be forced to drop their labels, while there are private labels as well as Government-sponsored ones," he said.
Instead, EUROBIT is backing the development of an international industry declaration and environmental information guidelines. The European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA) is preparing an industry standard on "product-related environmental attributes", designed to comply with a draft ISO standard on self-declared environmental claims.
ECMA's initiative is aimed solely at business customers. According to Mr Luekefett, the individual consumer "does not care. There are plenty of market studies showing that consumers are not prepared to pay more for a green PC, and if it's the same price they may or may not buy one." But the industry believes that some institutional buyers will pay a green premium, and ECMA's scheme includes a comprehensive environmental data sheet for purchasing managers.