Food industry rejects ‘carbon label’ idea

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The Commission is currently drawing up action plans on sustainable consumption and production. Details of the plans remain unclear, but the food and drink industry is urging the EU executive not to propose 'misleading' labels, such as those which focus only on the CO2 'impact' of products.

In its background paper on SCP and SIP, the Commission emphasises the growing focus on natural resources and argues that "the EU can foster its contribution to tackle these issues through an ambitious industrial and sustainable consumption and production policy".

The paper goes on to outline several policy options available to the EU, including better focus and coordination of existing policy mechanisms such as the IPP and the "Eco-design for energy-using products" (EuP) Directive. 

More investment in research and the creation of 'lead markets' to stimulate growth in certain sectors deemed highly sustainable are also cited in the paper. The Commission is expected to publish a communication on lead market initiatives in December 2007.

Apart from market support measures, the Commission may attempt to get tough on producers. "Product policy could be better used as a competitiveness and sustainability tool. Products entering the internal market could be subject to demanding but realistic requirements", the background paper says. "Best-performing products" should also be used as benchmarks, it adds.

In this context, new labelling schemes to either replace or improve upon existing schemes, such as the Eco-label or the Energy-star label, are seen by the Commission as a means "to shift demand towards the most sustainable products".

EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, whose directorate is in charge of the SCP dossier, commented in his blog on 15 October that a new carbon label might be one option to consider. "If there is a big demand for carbon labelling then it will be one of the issues that I will be looking to follow up on", he said. But Dimas added that "there is also the question of making sure that consumers can trust that labels are telling the whole truth and are not just being used to 'greenwash' products".

Consultations for the SCP and SIP closed on 23 September, and the Commission's action plans are scheduled to appear before the end of 2007, but may be delayed until early 2008. The Commission will consider reactions to its action plan before drawing up specific legislation on SCP and SIP before the end of 2008.

Pascal Gréverath of the Nestlé  Corporation and Chairman of the Sustainable Production and Consumption Expert Group of CIAA, the European Food and Drink Industry Association, told journalists in Brussels on 24 October that he is opposed to the idea of a carbon label.

Gréverath explained that such a label would risk being inaccurate and misleading, since focusing only on the CO2 impact of a product would distract attention from other factors, particularly the amount of water required in product manufacturing or the amount of waste produced at disposal.

CIAA as a whole is advocating a sectoral approach within SCP since different industries face different sustainability challenges. The organisation also "does not support discrimination between 'good' and 'bad' products on purely environmental grounds", arguing, in its contribution to the Commission's consultation, that other factors such as nutritional value and convenience should also be considered.

BusinessEurope, the Confederation of European Business, told EURACTIV that any SCP measures "should be in line with the dynamics and demand of the market. Products are bought because of their total performance, not only the environmental performance. Although 'citizens' might indicate that they are willing to pay for the environmental costs of a product, when acting as 'consumers', business experience has taught us that they will not buy the environmentally friendly (and often more expensive) product". 

Orgalime, the European Engineering Industries Association, agrees that, rather than environmental criteria, it is "the initial purchase price that determines the consumer's final choice", the organisation said in a 20 September position paper. 

Orgalime also argues against the use of words such as 'good' or 'bad' in defining products based on sustainability indicators. "Better market penetration of energy-efficient appliances, rather than a general heading of 'better products'" would foster sustainable consumption and production patterns, the position paper says.

Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) is in favour of regulatory methods to ensure most efficient, least damaging products are on the market". But the NGO is "very sceptical about the suggestion of a system for labelling certain large retailers as greener – this will heavily discriminate against SMEs, and the environmental performance of any one retailer is likely to vary across their product lines and activities", it said in its response to the Commission's consultation.

Reducing the environmental impact of consumer products - from the provision of raw materials and the production phase to consumption and disposal - is a challenge the Commission sought to address in its 2003 Integrated Product Policy (IPP) proposal.

But the IPP has been criticised both by NGOs, who argue the policy lacks teeth since it contains no legislative provisions, and businesses, who say its focus on the environment is too narrow and that it should be up to business rather than public regulators to ensure the sustainability of products. The Commission's efforts to preserve natural resources have also been criticised by MEPs as being too weak.

Partly in response these criticisms, the Commission is now consulting stakeholders and formulating action plans on sustainable consumption and production (SCP) and on a sustainable industrial policy (SIP)

  • Dec. 2007: Communication on lead market initiatives due;
  • Before end 2007 (tentative): Commission to present action plans on sustainable consumption and production, and on a sustainable industrial policy;
  • Before end 2008  (tentative): Commission to present legislative proposals following further input of stakeholders on proposed action plans.

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