British green label for eco-products

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Nicholas Schoon.

Five years ago, after exhaustive argument and much delay, the European Union's ecolabelling scheme was created. It was intended to bring reassurance and simplicity to "green minded" consumers who wished to buy products which did the least harm to the environment.

The plan was to have just one, trustworthy, label across the entire union. Companies which felt their products did the minimum of environmental damage in manufacture, use and disposal, were invited to apply for the label. A panel of experts, government-appointed, would set the "green" criteria for different types of products, then decide which brands qualified.

The scheme is widely perceived as a failure. It has been slow to develop, few firms have put forward their products for the Euro-ecolabel and most countries in the union have their own ecolabelling schemes which have more authority and recognition than that of the EU.Only Portugal, Greece, Ireland and the UK lack national labels.

Until now, Britain has stuck firmly with the European version, which can be found only on a few brands of kitchen paper, a handful of washing machine models, one detergent and a clutch of paints and varnishes. Very few consumers recognise the labels.

``We've tried harder than any other country to make it work,'' environment minister Michael Meacher told a conference on ecolabels yesterday. Now the Government would consider setting up a British ecolabel, making a decision in the next few months. ``We can't dilly dally any more.''

This dismayed Ritt Bjerregaard, the EU's environment commissioner, who was also speaking at the conference. Afterwards, she said: ``I was very surprised. I thought the new government was feeling more kindly towards European solutions, but this is in the opposite direction.''