Commission seeks solutions to ‘confusing’ Green labelled products

This article is part of our special report Climate change and the food chain.

SPECIAL REPORT / Adopting common methodologies to measure products’ environmental footprint is part of the EU’s efforts to move toward a green single market. But communicating this environmental information is a huge challenge.

The European Commission is trying to find a solution to the complexity of products’ environmental performance, to address consumer concerns about the products they buy, as well as to help EU companies minimise the cost of green labelling frameworks.

Measuring the environmental footprint

The European Commission issued a recommendation suggesting the use of the Product Environmental Footprint method in member states’ policies, in order to measure and communicate the potential environmental impact of a product.

The executive launched the Environmental Footprint Pilot Phase for the period 2013-2016, where more than 280 organizations and almost 10.000 stakeholders are participating.

Its main objective is to come up with a harmonized methodology for each product category, reflecting the various parameters that affect the environmental footprint.

Speaking in the mid-term conference on the Environmental Footprint pilot phase organized by the Commission’s DG Environment in Brussels (3 November), the European Commissioner for Environment, Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Karmenu Vella, said that the task was not easy.

“This is the first time that anyone has created a tool that can help us to compare similar products, based on their environmental performance, through the value chain,” he noted.

Towards a Green single market

“We want the pilot phase of the Environmental Footprint to be a great success,” the Commissioner said, adding that it could make a significant contribution to the transition to a Circular Economy, a priority initiative of the EU executive.

“It could aim, for example, to facilitate reuse and recycling, while minimizing impacts throughout the whole life-cycle- what could be called design for circularity,” Karmenu noted.

In late 2015, the Commission will present a new, more ambitious circular economy strategy aiming at transforming Europe into a more competitive resource-efficient economy, addressing a range of economic sectors, including waste.

>>Read: Special Report: Circular Economy

Vella said that on the way towards a circular economy, the EU needed a single market “in which products are green […] and it’s easy to demonstrate a product’s environmental performance”.

“It should be easy to compare products, with a common methodology for measuring that performance,” he added.

But for the Commissioner, the environmental footprint also reflects the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted at the end of September, in New York.

“If you look at the text itself, you can see that world leaders have made an explicit commitment to giving people the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature,” he noted.

The communication challenge

Today, EU companies wishing to indicate the environmental performance of their products, face a number of hindrances mainly due to the wide range of existing labels.

Member states have adopted several methods to measure and communicate the environmental impact of the products, making it costly and practically difficult for the companies to adjust and promote their green products in the single market.

From the companies’ perspective, the cost to adjust to the different methods in order to prove a product’s green credentials is high, and this questions the proper circulation of green products in the EU market.

The European Commission believes that having a common method could significantly reduce the cost for the companies.

“What is causing extra cost now, is that due to the many methods used, companies in the supply chain might be asked the same data in different formats, calculated in different ways”, Dr Michele Galatola from the Commission’s DG Environment told EURACTIV.

The different measurement methods, though, are not only a problem for the business sector.

According to Eurobarometer surveys, 48 % of EU consumers are confused by the stream of incomparable and diverse environmental information they receive when they purchase green products.

Despite that confusion, four out of five EU consumers buy environment-friendly products “at least sometimes”, but nearly half of them don’t fully trust the environmental claims.

On the other hand, only 55% of EU citizens feel informed about the environmental impacts of the products they buy and use, with 14% claiming that “they know a lot”, and 41% saying they are aware of the most significant impacts.

The PEF communication is, therefore, a huge challenge for the stakeholders who want to help EU consumers as well as businesses. 

For the Commission, communicating the environmental footprint of a product with a label is a solution among others, but it is not “necessarily the best for all products”.

Galatola told EURACTIV that there were many different communication vehicles that could be used to convey this information and the most appropriate vehicle changes with the typology of product and the targeted stakeholder.

He added that during the pilot phase industries were testing several approaches in order to identify those that could work best.

“The companies will also test how far consumers are able to understand PEF information and many of them will go through an exercise of explaining PEF to consumers and in Business-to-Business settings,” he noted.

He continued, saying that 70-80% of the benefits in implementing the PEF come from the way one will be able to better design products and manage the supply chain.

“We think there is currently too much focus on consumers and labelling only,” he underlined.

“It is important to keep in mind that PEF is a tool, not a policy. We rather see it as the possibility to build an internal consistent knowledge base that could then feed either existing policies or new ones,” Galatola stressed.

The “French experiment”

France’s Ministry of Ecology tried to test consumers’ behavior by making an “environmental labeling experiment”, in which 168 companies and organizations participated from July 2011 to July 2012.

The survey showed that consumers wanted a generalized environmental information framework while they rejected the too many types of green labeling.

Presenting the conclusions of the survey as well as the proposals of a working group on the format (2014-2015) to the mid-term conference in Brussels, Alexandra Bonnet said that the standardization of PEF methodology and communication ensures that information is “understandable, comparable, trustworthy and robust as it’s based on scientific ground”.

“It is important to communicate at the consumer’s level in order to give to this process its best potential effectiveness and because consumers asked for it,” she said, adding that a right balance between comprehensive and simple information is needed.

She underlined that it was the role of the public authorities to standardize the format of communication but emphasized that they should work together with the stakeholders.

Bonnet also stressed that a visual and recognizable “signature” was required for credibility as well as immediate identification.

The Internet is the best way

Luigi Cristiano Laurenza, Secretary General of the Union of Organisations of Manufactures of Pasta Products of the EU (UN.A.F.P.A) which is a member of FoodDrinkEurope, told EURACTIV that communicating the environmental footprint with a label is not the best solution and prefers instead the use of the internet.

“We deem that a label on the pack may not be the best solution since the environmental performance of a product is not a simple concept that can be expressed in labels”, he stressed, adding that various factors should be taken into account and clarified to the consumers.

“Labels may be not transparent and useful enough to deliver this kind of message”, he noted.

He continued, saying that the internet and new media could be the best way to deal with these themes as “they allow giving further information to consumers that are really interested in sustainability”.

According to Laurenza, a life cycle analysis of pasta shows that from farm to table, the environmental impact of pasta is quite low, and some pasta producers already measure and communicate the environmental impacts through voluntary certification schemes.

“We want to put an end to consumers seeing inconsistent environmental information on products,” Pekka Pesonen, Secretary General of farmers association Copa-Cogeca said when the SCP round table was launched in 2009.

“The challenge is to combine different environmental indicators because you cannot have just one parameter,” Nestlé’s Pascal Gréverath, who represents the food industry at the SCP Round Table with the Commission, recently said in an interview with EURACTIV.

“For electric appliances, it’s energy consumption —easy. But if you take food, there are more parameters: water consumption, biodiversity impact, greenhouse gas emissions. And the challenge is to combine these dimensions which are all relevant, into a simple communication tool,” he added.

"Finally, the EU decided to turn its back to the hoax of the so-called green economy concept and adopt the notion of circular economy in which the private sector and consumers work hand by hand on the transformation of our carbon-dependent economies to more sustainable patterns,” Dr. Stavros Mavrogenis, senior researcher in the European Center for Environmental Research and Training, told EURACTIV.

“The harmonization of the EU's environmental policy with the 2030 UN SDG's Agenda is undoubtedly what it's needed in order to maintain its leadership in promoting Sustainable Development and Climate Change at the global scale,” he added.

“Single-issue labels, such as the ecolabel, can indeed be confusing for consumers. The proposal for a product environmental footprint could also create confusion and, based on the discussions so far, there seems to be a serious risk of greenwashing,” IFOAM EU Director Marco Schlüter told EURACTIV.

“Instead of thinking about creating another new label, effort should be put into education about and promotion of the organic label,” he stressed.

According to the European Commission, the food and drink sector contributes to some 23% of global resource use, 18% of greenhouse gas emissions and 31% of acidifying emissions.

An EU sustainable food chain roundtable was launched in May 2009, bringing together policymakers, farmers, food and drink producers, packaging firms and consumer organisations to develop methodologies to measure the environmental impact of the food and drinks industry.

The round table’s main achievement was the publication of a global methodology for calculating the environmental footprint of food and drink products, which was formally agreed in January 2014. On the regulatory side, the Commission followed up in 2013 by issuing a non-binding recommendation on how to measure and communicate the environmental performance of products.

A series of pilot projects were subsequently launched by the Commission in June 2014 to assess the environmental footprint of specific products like beer, coffee, meat, pasta or packed water. Those are expected to conclude in 2017 with a harmonised methodology for each product category.

The Commission will then review the pilots and decide what policy conclusions can be drawn.

  • End of 2016: The PEF pilot phase is expected to come to an end and then the European Commission will make an overall review
  • Late 2015: The European Commission expected to present an ambitious circular economy strategy

Subscribe to our newsletters