Move towards international harmonisation of eco-labelling

Eco-labelling programmes across the world have moved a step towards harmonisation following an agreement to set up a global network of eco-labellers. The initiative is unlikely to lead to common world-wide criteria for products in the foreseeable future. But comparable basic principles and methodologies may lead to a convergence of standards.

About 30 environmental labelling programmes are now operational. When ENDS published a study of eco-labelling in 1989, only four such schemes were in operation and another three or so in the pipeline.

The most ambitious of these schemes is the EC's. A Community initiative was deemed essential to ensure that national schemes did not erect barriers to trade. But reconciling different national attitudes to environmental problems has proved difficult, and today criteria for only four product groups have been finalised.

Other schemes have been more successful. The US Green Seal programme, for example, has set standards for 45 product groups. But the proliferation of national schemes has led to widely divergent standards for some products. To international traders wanting to gain an eco-label under each programme, the costs and bureaucracy involved can be daunting. In addition, the costly standard-setting work is often replicated in each programme. Some degree of harmonisation would reap benefits.

Representatives of several eco-labelling programmes met initially in Berlin in 1990, and held a further meeting in 1991. Their latest get-together, hosted by Green Seal, was held in Washington in March.

The outcome was a commitment by the 12 countries represented to set up a global network of eco-labellers. A steering committee, including the UK Ecolabelling Board (UKEB), has been set up to arrange the terms of reference of the network and the next meeting in November.

The network will not in any way set international eco-labelling criteria. Jerry Rendel, Director of the UKEB, says that this is undesirable because many impacts are of a local or regional nature. And the difficulties of drawing up standards at EC level suggest that this approach would probably be unworkable.

However, the network will be aiming to exchange information and to work towards harmonisation of methodologies and test methods. This in itself may lead to some convergence of standards.

The first step along this path is in the ten guiding principles which participating schemes will have to meet. These include:

  • The schemes must be not-for-profit and independent of commercial interests and influence, and their sources of funding should in no way create conflicts of interest.

  • They must seek advice from and consult with stakeholders, use a legally protected logo, and determine "stringent" criteria for eco-labelling based on the overall life of a product.

  • They should institute periodic reviews or updates of environmental criteria, taking into account technological and market developments.

    The network will need to deal with the potential trade barriers that can be erected by national eco-labelling schemes. Brazilian, US and Canadian timber and paper interests, for example, lobbied strongly against the criteria for toilet paper and kitchen rolls agreed recently at EC level (see pp 28-29 ) because these supposedly favoured European mills. To overcome trade implications, eco-labelling programmes will need to use transparent and open criteria-setting processes and develop criteria that can relate to processes in other countries, says Mr Rendel.

    Trade implications have also worried the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). They have now embarked on a joint study of how eco-labelling in developed countries can create trade barriers to exporters from developing countries. For example, producers in developing countries may have to comply with health, safety and environment legislation in force in developed countries to gain an eco-label. In addition, the costs and procedures required to get an eco-label may prove prohibitive to companies in developing countries.

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