Since its inception in 1999, thirteen European countries have adopted the Euro as their national currency. In another well-discussed move that attempts to bond a common European market, the European Union, in the early 90’s, and prior to the adoption of the Euro, implemented the Eco-Labeling Regulation. This 1992 agreement states that member countries will implement a cohesive system of labeling ecologically friendly products and services in order to encourage a continent-wide, and possibly an eventual worldwide, definition of what is to be considered good for the future of the environment.
The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (1999) defines Eco-Labeling as “a voluntary trademark that is awarded to products deemed to be less harmful to the environment than other products within the same category.” The idea is that an informed consumer will prefer to invest in products and services that make the best use of the environment. An “award” in the form of an official “flower” stamp that details one, two, or three of the requirements that the product has met to ensure that it is environmentally friendly. The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union has stated that “It is necessary to explain to consumers that the eco-label represents those products which have the potential to reduce certain negative environmental impacts, as compared with other products in the same product group, without prejudice to regulatory requirements applicable to products at a Community or a national level”. The Royal Society of Chemistry noted, in its 1998 document entitled Eco-Labeling: Life-Cycle Assessment In Action, that Eco-Labeling is a valid pursuit but argues that “the companies genuinely embracing eco-labeling will tend to be those with major market penetration and high brand status.”
In May 1997, a report entitled The European Union Eco-Labeling Scheme for Textiles: Ecological Criteria for Bed Linen and T-Shirts, points out that Eco-Labeling will incur additional expenses for manufacturers and that many nations already have their own ecological stamps of approval in force that have been slow in catching on. Although the primary purpose of Eco-Labeling was to implement a cohesive strategy and definition of “green” products and services, many industries rejoiced at a European-wide set of standards and expressed disappointment that industry standards were being constantly redefined after they thought a definition had been reached via their own industry regulation councils.
General concerns about the Eco-Labeling law include criteria subjectivity, financial cost of implementation, and discrimination against imported products that are similar and meet the Eco-Labeling criteria. One report calls Eco-Labeling “unrealistic”, and another defines Eco-Labeling as a failure while commending Germany’s Blue Angel label as being the best. This discussion also calls the Eco-Labeling process “lengthy” and “bureaucratic” and “political” and points out that politicians should not be making policy decisions on industry standards.
The implementation of the European Union’s Eco-Labeling criteria has been slow and has met with some resistance, not from consumers, but from industry manufacturers and distributors. Complaints that the EU’s system is bogged down in bureaucratical intricacies and political negotiations have marred the scheme’s progress and acceptance. Industry leaders have expressed the very valid concern that their own governing organizations have spent years evaluating and developing the appropriate guidelines and procedures for application to their particular industry processes and that, since the inception of Eco-Labeling, politicians and other government officials are reevaluating and redefining these widely accepted industry standards.
Important questions have arisen regarding the impartiality of the Eco-Labeling system as it is currently defined and why the Eco-Labeling system doesn’t more closely mirror successful established systems of environmental labeling already in place such as Germany’s Blue Angel system. The Eco-Labeling system also tends to ignore that these other systems would have to be scrapped and the Eco-Labeling system adopted by all European manufacturers for the system to be completely effective.
Globalization of labeling guidelines for products and services is, in itself, a commendable idea. However, the reality of implementing a continent-wide strategy that has ignored the input and concerns of industry and trade leaders appears destined for failure. Consumers have, in recent years, become much more environmentally savvy and are open to purchasing more “green” products. Any effective Eco-Labeling criteria have to appeal to both the consumer and the industry that produces the targeted goods and/or services.