Single Market in Green Products

EU-wide methods for measuring and communicating the environmental performance of products and services have been put forward by the Commission.

The overall objective of these initiatives – a Communication and a Recommendation – is to make it easier for private companies to highlight their green credentials and to provide more user-friendly environmental information for consumers.

The Commission believes that these two non-legislative proposals will contribute towards the implementation of the Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, in particular the section related to sustainable consumption and production.

Context

Private companies face a number of obstacles in communicating the environmental performance of their products and services. They currently have to choose between several different methods, and are often forced to pay multiple costs for providing environmental information.

As a result, there is a fair amount of consumer mistrust and confusion. There are at present too many different types of labels, making it difficult to compare products. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey on green products, 48% of European consumers are confused by the stream of environmental information they receive.

Tackling the Issues

The Commission has identified the following issues which must be tackled.

Measuring and Benchmarking

There is at present no widely accepted science-based definition of what a green product, or a green organisation, actually is.

The Commission suggests that a green product could be defined as one that uses resources more efficiently and causes less environmental damage along its life cycle. This would cover the extraction of raw materials to a product’s production, distribution, use and up to its end of life (including reuse, recycling and recovery), compared to other similar products of the same category.

The Commission says that green companies integrate what is called 'life-cycle thinking' into their strategies and decision-making. In doing so, they minimise the environmental impact of their activities both directly and indirectly.

There are different methods currently used for measuring and benchmarking environmental performance, but they vary and give different results when applied to the same product or organisation.

Comparability is therefore important to allow competition based on environmental performance, and to allow consumers and businesses to take informed decisions.

Costs for Businesses

This lack of consistency is one of the biggest barriers to the display and benchmarking of environmental performance. The number of footprint methods (e.g. carbon footprint, water footprint) is rapidly increasing, in parallel with a proliferation of national and private sector initiatives.

This can generate significant costs for businesses, especially in case they need to use different methods or if they have to comply with labelling and verification requirements for different countries and retailers.

In order to be able to compete based on environmental performance, companies have to join different private or public schemes in individual markets. Exporters need to use national communication methods – such as national eco-label schemes - familiar to domestic consumers in order not to be disadvantaged against local producers.

Consumer Trust

A recent survey showed that 75% of EU citizens are ready to buy green products, but that only 17% had actually done so in the month before the survey. The reasons given include a lack of trust on the environmental information provided by producers and retailers, and the limited availability of green products at affordable prices.

The number of green claims is growing, but they are, at the same time, becoming more superficial and vague in their use of terminology. This is contributing to a deterioration of consumer trust.

EU Policy Response

Environmental Footprint

The Commission, on the basis of its work with stakeholders and the scientific community, has put forward in its Communication two methods to assess and benchmark environmental performance: the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) and the Organisation Environmental Footprint (OEF) methods.

These methods are based on the existing Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approaches and international standards. The LCA is a methodological tool that applies life cycle thinking in a quantitative way on environmental analysis of activities related to processes or products. 

The life cycle assessment is characterised by the holistic focus on products or processes and their functions, considering upstream and downstream activities. 

The PEF and OEF methods require that for making comparisons, Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules (PEFCR) and Organisation Environmental Footprint Sector Rules (OEFSR) are developed. These will tailor the general provisions of the PEF and OEF methods into product category or sector specific rules that will allow to focus on the three or four most relevant environmental impacts amongst the 14 key environmental impacts indicators and the most relevant processes or life cycle stages for a given product category or sector. In this way the results of separate assessments will be comparable within a given product category or sector, independently of who carries them out.

A model will be defined as a representative for each product or organisation category in the EU market. Then the model’s life cycle environmental performance will be calculated, and that will become the benchmark to which the performances of other products or organisations of that category on the market will be compared to.

New Policy Development

The Commission also states that, in consultation with stakeholders, it will gradually incorporate the methods as appropriate in its Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), Green Public Procurement (GPP) and in the EU Ecolabel.

Together with the Communication, the Commission also adopted a Recommendation on the use of the PEF and OEF methods to measure and communicate the environmental performance of products and organisations. The Commission is inviting Member States and stakeholders to use PEF and OEF methods in relevant voluntary policies and initiatives involving the measurement and communication of the life cycle environmental performance of products and organisations.

A Pilot Phase

The Commission also plans to organise a pilot phase, a three-year testing of the implementation of the environmental footprint methods, with the participation of volunteering stakeholders. The objectives of the pilot phase are to: 
• Set up and validate the process of the development of PEFCRs and OEFSRs, including the development of environmental benchmarks for each of them 
• Test different compliance and verification systems for PEF and OEF, including ex-ante verification (i.e. conformity assessment) and ex-post verification (i.e. market surveillance), in order to set up and validate proportionate, effective and efficient compliance and verification systems 
• Test different approaches for business-to-consumer and business-to-business communication in collaboration with stakeholders

Better Communication

Inadequate communication can confuse and mislead recipients, obstruct decision-making and undermine the trust in environmental claims. For this reason, and based on the experience of the multi-stakeholder dialogue, the Commission has recommended a set of principles to be applied when communicating the environmental performance of products and organisations.

These include: 
• Transparency: giving information on the way the information has been generated
• Availability and accessibility: giving information in a simple and immediately understandable format
• Reliability: giving information scientifically accurate and verifiable
• Completeness: giving information on all the relevant environmental impact categories
• Comparability: enabling to compare the environmental performance information related to a specific product category or sector
• Clarity: presenting information in a clear, precise and fully understandable way for the users

Next Steps

The Commission will issue a call for volunteers in 2013 inviting stakeholders to participate in the pilot-phase to develop PEFCRs and OEFSRs, open to evaluate alternative approaches able to achieve comparable objectives. The Commission will submit the final results of the pilot phase to an independent peer-review process, assessing these results against those of the possible alternative methods proposed by stakeholders.

Based on the pilot phase evaluation, the Commission will assess whether the methods, products and sector performance benchmarks and incentives can be further integrated in a wider range of already existing or new instruments.