EU energy labels could be in line for a radical facelift if a proposal by European environmental and business groups is adopted during a review of the Energy Labelling Directive, slated to begin this winter.
Since 2010, a rainbow-coloured letter labelling system has graded consumer products like washing machines and fridges on a scale ranging from A+++ to D, with the top three ‘A’ grades all coloured in shades of green.
But this has been criticised for providing consumers with less product information than industry-influenced opinion, and the new proposal was floated last month by Stéphane Arditi, a senior officer for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).
“Consumers are told to go for green labels without knowing what it represents in terms of energy consumption or efficiency,” he told a summer study organised by the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy in Toulon, France.
“For certain products you have a huge concentration in the highest class [and] the boundaries between grades are sometimes defined so that a product can appear just at the bottom end of the A+ to get a green colour."
Because this only provided limited information about a product's performance, "we have suggested a fixed numerical scale going from 100 to absolute zero instead,” he said.
Rating a product’s efficiency performance in numbers had “revolutionary” aspects, that allowed more precise comparisons between products, Arditi told EURACTIV.
It could also be augmented by a dated ‘benchmark’ – possibly in a green hue – showing the best efficiency standard for that time period.
Green product experts are still brainstorming what medium to propose for the labels with paper, packaging, the internet, or even a smartphone application into which you could tap a barcode all up for discussion.
As well as the EEB, the fixed scale label is supported by the European Environmental Citizens Organisation for Standardisation (ECOS) and the European Committee of Domestic Equipment Manufacturers (CECED).
EURACTIV understands that the proposal has also been discussed informally with representatives of industries affected by labelling, such as lighting, windows and electric heat pumps.
The last battle between NGOs and business over energy labelling in 2010 is widely viewed as a traumatic episode, and the energy efficiency community is likely to pursue a more consensus-based approach this time around.
Luigi Meli, CECED director, said business sectors might be divided on the fixed scale labels but some had already expressed interest and “we are totally open to take it as a reference and adapt it.”
“This has to be tested and verified and we agree to think outside the box,” he said. “Some of these innovative ideas we like, others we are not convinced of but we expect the Commission to test them.”
Energy labelling review
On 27 June, the Commission held its first stakeholder meeting on the subject, with a consultation process on the energy labelling scheme expected to launch next month. It should wind up with a technical report in June 2014, as the current Commission ends.
Two studies are expected to accompany the review – an impact assessment and a smaller study to explore and test three possible alternatives to today’s energy labelling regime.
Other potential label designs could grade products according to a blended colour scale, and include open-ended – or empty – classes to denote the current state of the market.
A recent focus group-based study by the Collaborative Labelling and Appliance Standards Program (CLASP) found that most consumers understood the existing lettered labels, but that public information campaigns would help the minority who did not.
Sometimes the education you do around an instrument can be as important as the instrument itself,” Arditi said. “We could have a perfect labelling scheme but if noone is talking about it, it will be a disaster.”
In the CLASP study, most participants were “strongly motivated” by label information, would not consider buying energy-guzzling products, and said they would be prepared to pay roughly 50% more for higher efficiency products.
Colour-coded consumer influence
The choice of colours used – particularly green – had “a large impact on consumer preference,” the CLASP report found.
In all, the EU’s scheme was “one of the most influential and successful energy labelling programmes in the world” it said, noting that it was generally well-liked by consumers, even if most were unaware that that it was an EU initiative.
“The idea is to maintain the success of this label by constantly transforming the market through consumer-driven behaviour and manufacturer-driven strategy,” Arditi said.