Bungled chance to help shoppers buy green

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The Independent Online
THIS week the UK Ecolabelling Board was hoping to announce that the first five or six products that have won the EC's new ecological logo would be available in our high-street stores. The logo represents merit for good green behaviour for companies and products that supposedly set high ecological standards. The idea was to provide consumers with reliable information that they could trust, increase environmental awareness, and highlight good products made by green companies.

The principle of eco-labelling sounds fair enough, but the practice, which has already cost pounds 1m in research and set-up expenses, has landed the government-funded committee in hot water. Because of a myriad scientific, technical and moral arguments, it is unlikely that British consumers will see any eco-labelled products on supermarket shelves much before the autumn, already a year and a half later than expected. Instead of shoppers being able to buy the products, the board will announce, probably with considerable gusto, that the work is continuing and some of the products are 'nearly' ready to go on the shelves.

So what has gone wrong? The consumer could certainly do with some help. Recent market research suggests that 67 per cent of us are confused about correct ecological labelling, mostly by large companies claiming environmental friendliness for one spurious reason or another. Yet environmentalists are increasingly concerned that the criteria and standards set by the committees for the 20 product groups in the pipeline are too lax, not wide-ranging enough, and lack credibility. Their arguments are, of course, snorted down by industry. So far, industry has won most of its demands, been able to put up strong representation at committee meetings held throughout Europe, water down criteria and threaten to pull out of the scheme altogether if the final standards do not suit it.

Take the case of light bulbs. The committee took the right decision to award an eco- label only to the efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, excluding 85 per cent of the current light- bulb market in one fell swoop. The European Lighting Federation then snubbed the whole procedure and decided that none of its members - the majority of European lighting manufacturers - would be applying for an eco-label.

On hairsprays, shampoos and similar products, another argument rages, that of animal testing. For the average consumer, the issue is fairly clear cut: ingredients either are or are not tested on animals, and nearly two-thirds of consumers say that they buy 'green' products, with a preference for those that are not so tested.

For the Ecolabelling Board, however, the discussion became so complex that the issue was dropped completely, ensuring that companies with a commitment not to test, such as the Body Shop, would pull out, while companies such as Procter & Gamble that are committed to continued testing, would stay in.

One of the most ludicrous products the committee has spent money on is paper kitchen towels. Consumers could find themselves buying products, backed by eco-labels, using virgin forest, temperate forest, boreal forest, eucalyptus plantation, 50 per cent recycled paper, 75 per cent recycled paper and 100 per cent recycled paper. The group's committees discussed and vacillated for months, accepting industry proposals on 'sustainable' forestry. Why did they not have the courage to tell the public that it might actually be better for the environment if you rinsed out a cloth towel? (And before you scoff about the water wastage involved in rinsing cloths, remember that the paper industry is one of the largest industrial users of water in Europe.)

On washing machines the data used, provided by British companies, is already two years out of date so that one-third of the market already meets the key criterion, that of energy efficiency. The manufacturers know that by the time the logo is appearing in the high street so many of them will be able to meet the energy criteria by continuing normal efficiency upgrades that the logo will probably have little effect.

One problem is that committee advisers were encouraged to ensure that between 5 and 20 per cent of the market could meet the criteria, to 'motivate consumers'. But with rapid technological advances affecting many production processes, the advisers should have exercised much greater discretion and used this as an opportunity to set high ecological standards. Fridges are a case in point. The criteria were set to include fridges that have CFC substitutes such as HCFCs - not quite as bad for the ozone layer, but not the best answer. By October 1992, working with Greenpeace, German manufacturers had come up with a completely CFC-free version using butane-propane, and today four major companies have followed suit.

Giving labels to disposable products, testing products on animals, using industry data without cross-checking and allowing standards to be set at embarrassingly low levels in the end offers little help to the consumer - and even less to our polluted planet.

The author is director of the Women's Environmental Network.