To date, there has been little spillover from niche markets for more environmentally-friendly goods into the wider retail sector, according to Jim Murray, former director of the European Consumers' Organisation BEUC.
Murray, who addressed the issue along with other panelists during a 22 February debate at the European Business Summit (EBS) in Brussels, said that schemes like the EU's eco label have been "disappointing" in terms of their impact on purchasing patterns.
Consumers are also being confused by a proliferation of environmental claims that have become "meaningless", he said.
Concerns over excessive use of different labels were also echoed by Roland Vaxelaire of the Carrefour Group. Vaxelaire argued that companies need more support in order to reduce prices for greener goods, and that while labels are important, customers should not be confused and made to feel guilty.
The EU should also "avoid the experience we had with nutrition," he said, in reference to an ongoing controversy about new EU food labelling rules (EurActiv 31/01/08).
The Commission is currently planning a revision and possible expansion of the eco label scheme as part of a new action plan on sustainable consumption and production (SCP), expected in mid-April (see also EurActiv 21/02/08).
Gianni Ciserani of Procter & Gamble told the audience that "consumers want it all," and that greener consumption patterns will not become possible until products can simultaneously provide superior performance, fair value, a 'memorable experience' and sustainability.
"If we continue to offer a compromise, we will not see the change in consumer behaviour we want to see," he said.
All the panellists agreed that labels can be useful as long as they are based on consistent and easy-to-understand criteria, and are used in combination with other measures. Differing views emerged on fiscal incentives, however.
Murray noted that tax breaks have not been as successful as expected, citing a 2006 study by the UK's Sustainable Development Commission.
Erika Mink of Tetra Pak urged "caution" on the use of taxation, while former EU Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler spoke in favour of higher taxation on resource use, offset by decreased taxes on income. Fischler also argued that the market should play a greater role in creating incentives for cleaner consumption patterns.
During a separate debate at the EBS, EU Enterprise and Industry Commissioner Günther Verheugen indicated his support for incentive-based rather than prescriptive measures to stimulate more sustainable industrial production. The Commission will present an action plan on sustainable industrial policy (SIP) alongside the SCP action plan.