Janez Potočnik is a Slovenian politician and European commissioner for the environment.
Last week the Commission adopted criteria under which Member States can award Ecolabel status to toilets and urinals. It was great to see such extensive media interest in this apparently minor issue. The message must finally be getting through that the EU is facing a resource crisis and needs to do something about it. Or is it? Sadly not, apparently, as many media simply saw a stick with which they could try to bash the EU with erroneous headlines about regulating toilet flushing or standardising toilets. But maybe there's a useful side-effect– maybe people will reflect on why we need schemes such as the Ecolabel, for example?
The European Ecolabel has been around since 1992 to encourage development of products and services that are kinder to the environment and allow consumers to recognise them easily. It now covers over 17.000 products and services including detergents; textiles, footwear, paints , computers, TVs, mattresses, paper, campsites and tourist accommodation. Oh, and urinals.
Ecolabel products are voluntary – there is no obligation to use them – and they are subject to tough criteria that take the whole product life cycle into account. They are also third-party verified, don’t cost any more than other products and they help you to make savings: e.g., electrical Ecolabel products are designed to have low energy consumption, saving you money over the lifetime of the product.
Of course it's the bigger picture that is really important. We are already overshooting the sustainable levels of use of many of the natural resources on our planet: water, land, energy, oceans, raw materials, biodiversity and ecosystems. Already today 60 % of our ecosystems underpinning these resources are degraded or are used unsustainably.
And by 2030 we will share the planet with an additional 3 billion middle class consumers. The estimates are that we will need three times more resources – 140 billion tons annually – by 2050. And by the way, without important efficiency gains, by 2030, we will need 40% more water than we can access.
In the EU we have set ourselves the objective in our economic strategy – Europe 2020 – of decoupling economic growth from resource use and environmental degradation and we have put in place a roadmap to achieve that aim.
The Commission's Roadmap to a Resource-Efficient Europe is an agenda for competitiveness and growth based on using fewer resources when we produce and consume goods and creating business and job opportunities from activities such as recycling, better product design, materials substitution and eco-engineering. Measures are aimed at transforming production and consumption, with incentives for investors to promote green innovation, a greater role for greener spending by public bodies and, among other things, Ecolabels.
It is no longer enough to depend upon laws to punish polluters for the worst excesses if we are to deal with the far more significant pressures on our resources and environment in the coming decades. We need to change the ways the markets work to incentivise resource efficiency and the circular economy, and to internalise the real costs of our behaviour as producers and consumers.
Resource-efficient businesses need to become the norm rather than the exception, and clean technologies and innovation are the essential ingredients to achieve this.
Credible labels, such as the EU Ecolabel are essential to developing sustainable consumption and a sustainable economy. With more than 400 environmental labels used worldwide – some trustworthy, some not; some clear, some less –consumers are increasingly confused. 48 % of Europeans don't trust claims regarding environmental performance of products. We need a European Ecolabel that will reward the environmental champions and push all the products entering the European market to become greener.
And, far from generating red tape or being a burden on industry, Ecolabel criteria are developed with the involvement of industry and consumers - the European Union Ecolabelling Board includes representatives of the European Confederation of Associations of Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (CEA-PME), Business Europe, Eurocoop, European Association of Craft, Small & Medium-Sized Enterprises (UEAPME), Eurocommerce, BEUC and the EEB.
If we want to set the Planet on the path to sustainable consumption patterns and to growth based on smart use of resources, we have to make the markets work properly for the best products – whether we speak of televisions, textiles, or… toilets.