11.9.2009   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 218/50


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on a Community Ecolabel schemes

COM(2008) 401 final — 2008/0152 (COD)

2009/C 218/11

On 11 September 2008 the Council decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 175(1) of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the subject

Community Ecolabel scheme

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 28 January 2009. The rapporteur was Ms GAUCI.

At its 451st plenary session, held on 25 and 26 February 2009 (meeting of 26 February), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 157 votes to 2 with 4 abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1

The EU Ecolabel should remain a voluntary instrument. The voluntary character of the scheme allows it to set high and ambitious standards which only allow for the promotion of products and services with a high environmental performance.

1.2

The Committee insists that the management of the scheme be improved, allowing it to be run in a more business-like way.

1.3

The Committee agrees with the Commission that the number of product groups as well as of licence holders has to be substantially increased.

1.4

The Committee believes that an Ecolabel on all food products, fresh and processed, would be the first step towards a genuine greening of the supply chain. The Committee however believes that the Ecolabel of foodstuffs should only be granted if the whole life-cycle of the product is taken into account. The proposal does not make clear which types of food product the Commission believes should be covered by the regulation.

1.5

The Committee believes that packaging should only be included in the ecolabel criteria, where it is relevant for the individual product group.

2.   Introduction

2.1

In July 2008 the Commission published its Proposal for a Regulation on a Community Ecolabel scheme. The Proposal is designed to replace Regulation (EC) No 1980/2000 of 17 July 2000 on a revised Community Ecolabel award scheme.

2.2

This is not a new subject for the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). The Committee expressed its views on the original proposal (1) and has also made numerous suggestions on the future course of the scheme as part of other recent opinions (2).

2.3

The drafting of this opinion has also benefited from the various inputs provided by the competent bodies, European interest groups and companies involved in the scheme. In particular, the EESC benefited from the presentations of different business representatives, environmental NGOs and consumer organisations that participated in a hearing organised in the Committee's premises.

3.   General Comments

3.1

The state of the environment gives rise to increasing concerns.

Modern production and consumption patterns have contributed to a greater demand for energy and resources which are used in an unsustainable way, thus challenging the objective to mitigate the negative impact of human activity on the environment, health and natural resources.

3.2

Economies today therefore face a great challenge in integrating environmental sustainability with economic growth and welfare in order to correct errors of the past.

3.3

The financial crisis that has hit economies worldwide should not water down efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change and to protect the environment. On the contrary, the greening of the supply chain should be seen as a starting point that should progressively apply to all industrial sectors.

3.4

In this context, sustainable consumption and production maximises businesses' potential to transform environmental challenges into economic opportunities and provides a better deal for consumers.

3.5

The challenge is to improve the overall environmental performance of products throughout their life-cycle, to boost the demand for better products and production technologies and to help consumers in making informed choices.

3.6

As a consequence, the Committee supports a multi-criteria, third-party accredited ecolabel based on ‘life cycle thinking’ (3) that can be one component of those policy instruments (4).

3.7

The Committee is strongly in favour of initiatives aimed at developing a Community policy of sustainable production and consumption, fully mainstreamed into other Community policies, with a view to developing a ‘green market’ to ensure that these products and services respond to clear, common definitions and are genuinely available in all the Member States.

3.8

The experience gained from the use of the ecolabel scheme justifies amendments to the Regulation in force.

The current shortfalls of the scheme as it stands today can be summarised as follows:

i.

slow progress of the scheme;

ii.

a low awareness of the label;

iii.

a low uptake of the scheme by industry;

iv.

an overly bureaucratic process for criteria-setting and management;

v.

products and services that have the most significant environmental impacts and the highest potential for improvement are not covered by the current product groups;

vi.

differences in market conditions within the Community;

vii.

the proliferation of other ecolabelling schemes.

The Committee will give its views on these weaknesses under the Section ‘Specific comments’ where it discusses the measures proposed by the Commission to improve the scheme.

3.9

Finally, the successful implementation of the EU Ecolabel scheme is also of great importance since it is the only product-related and demand-driven voluntary policy instrument to pursue the cause of sustainability.

4.   Specific comments

4.1   The EU Ecolabel is a voluntary instrument and should remain so. The voluntary character of the scheme allows it to set high and ambitious standards for criteria which only allow for the promotion of products and services with a high environmental performance as opposed to products and services that do not take on board the need to reduce the environmental impact.

The Ecolabel is meant to provide end consumers with specific environmental information on the end product in order to make easy and informed environmental choices. However, the Committee underlines that the Ecolabel should not become or should not be used as a pretext to erect new barriers to trade among products with the same functions and performances.

4.2   The Committee insists that the management of the scheme be improved. The bureaucratic processes embedded in the scheme need to be rationalised, allowing it to be run in a more business-like way.

In other words, who does what needs to be more clearly defined.

4.3   As far as possible, the role of national authorities should focus on the proper enforcement of the Regulation and undertake market surveillance in accordance with the Commission proposal.

4.4   The bureaucracy linked to criteria development for product groups and to application procedures needs to be reduced whilst at the same time keeping the ambition level high.

In addition, Ecolabel criteria should also ensure that products that bear the Ecolabel flower are not detrimental to health, safety or any other social aspects.

4.5   The Committee calls for clarity of criteria and uniformity in minimum requirements throughout the internal market with regard to labelling systems for eco-products. This is in order to secure fairness in green consumer choices, uniform controls throughout the EU and respect for the principle of free movement for genuinely green products. The European Ecolabel (European flower) should be further marketed and should be able to co-exist with national and sectorial labelling systems, insofar as such labels are also based on sound science and are consistent with the rest of the European regulatory framework.

4.6   Furthermore, criteria on substances should be based on risk assessment.

A simple list of preferred or undesired chemical substances based on their hazard classification alone, without any scientific or legal reference, leads very often to confusion and discrimination. Thus, it is arguable whether criteria such as ‘hazardous materials’ should even be included on an ecolabel at all: an environmental label cannot substitute official EU legislation applicable in this field, such as Directive 67/548/EEC (5).

4.7   Moreover, the Committee believes that local considerations have sometimes influenced general criteria. It is not always true that current criteria, considered in a specific ecolabel and defined at European or national level, are the ones that lead to the lowest environmental impact in a local situation.

For example, water use may have a greater impact in southern Europe than in northern Europe.

The Committee therefore supports the development of criteria which are not subject to strong local impact variations.

4.8   Criteria documents have to be much more user-friendly, with a standardised format. The Committee therefore believes that the European Commission should initiate a template for standardised and user-friendly criteria documents, thus enabling companies and public purchasers to save time and resources when they draft specifications in accordance with the Ecolabel criteria.

4.9   The Commission argues that the number of product groups as well as of licence holders has to be substantially increased, targeting those areas of highest environmental impact and where the possibility of improvement is highest.

While the Committee welcomes this idea in principle, the scope of ecolabelling should not be extended indefinitely.

4.9.1   Many European industries have felt pressurised to provide interested parties with environmental information. Pressure to do so comes from the EU and the individual member states and is expressed in the wish for products to carry some marking or at least to give an indication of their environmentally friendly credentials. These industries are responding to the increased awareness and the demand for environmental information by professional users and consumers. The concept of ecolabelling (6) is certainly appropriate for markets where the consumer can generally be assumed to be uninformed or non-expert and where the competing products are well defined.

4.10   A more successful Ecolabel will, above all, depend on a substantially increased marketing budget, helping to disseminate relevant information both for the attention of businesses and consumers.

4.10.1   As mentioned previously, the Ecolabel scheme suffers on the one hand from low consumer awareness.

The average consumer is either not aware of the existence of the Ecolabel scheme or is not sufficiently informed about the parameters taken into account in granting it. Thus, the environmental choice of a consumer is not for the time being appropriately encouraged by means of information campaigns.

4.10.2   On the other hand, businesses also need to be further alerted about the advantages linked to the use of the Ecolabel. The scheme will thus be reinforced and businesses can save time and resources by not having to search for information on how to obtain the Ecolabel.

4.11   The Committee is still of the opinion that the development of the number of criteria for product groups adopted and the number of ecolabels awarded to date should not be judged negatively, given the short period in which the regulation has been in force. The German ‘Blue Angel’ (1977) and the ‘Nordic Swan’ (1989), which are now firmly established in their home markets and to some extent also abroad, initially faced similar disappointments and set-backs. They too were ‘slow starters’.

4.12   The Committee is also convinced that, given the trade barrier implications of the national schemes, the future of environmental labelling lies with strengthening the EU scheme. To achieve this, an effort should be made to harmonise as much as possible the criteria of these national ecolabel schemes.

5.   Some comments on the articles of the draft regulation

5.1   With regard to the assessment procedure as such, the Committee believes that article 7.2 providing for a ‘shortened criteria development procedure’ may permit watered-down backdoor entry to the EU scheme. It is essential that stakeholders are assured of similar high standards of transparency and stakeholder consultation.

5.2   Food and drink products (together with pharmaceuticals and medical devices) are excluded from the scope of the existing Regulation (EC)1980/2000 in order to avoid potential conflicts with existing EU food legislation, regulating, inter alia, aspects such as food safety, hygiene and labelling of foodstuffs.

5.3   The Commission is now proposing to extend the scope of the Ecolabel Regulation to a limited fraction of food and drink products, i.e. processed food, products of fishing, aquaculture. The majority of food and drink products would remain excluded (7).

5.4   Furthermore, Article 7 (3) and Article 9 (10) state that, with regard to processed food, the Ecolabel ‘relates only to the environmental performance of processing, transport or packaging of the product.’ In other words, the environmental assessment for these food and drink products is limited to a few restricted stages in their life-cycle, i.e. processing, packaging, and transport.

5.5   The Committee disagrees with this fragmented EC proposal for two reasons.

5.5.1   First, the Committee is concerned that this disrespect of the life-cycle principle, which is fundamental to the EU Ecolabel legislation as well as to all international standards on life-cycle assessment, would result in biased environmental assessments and, in turn, in misleading information to consumers.

Numerous scientific studies, including the EIPRO and IMPRO studies conducted on behalf of the EC, conclude that critical environmental impacts of food and drink products arise both at the agricultural production stage and at the consumption stage.

It is questionable as to why these very significant life-cycle stages are excluded from the assessment.

5.5.2   Second, it is not understandable that processed food should fall under the scope of the revised Ecolabel scheme, while fresh food would be excluded.

5.5.3   The Committee fears that consumers would be confused and misled by such a patchwork of incoherent information on food and drink products.

5.5.4   The Committee believes that an Ecolabel on all food products, fresh and processed, would be the first step towards a genuine greening of the supply chain: food and drinks production has a high environmental footprint that Ecolabel criteria can help to mitigate.

Furthermore, from a trade viewpoint, an Ecolabel for food products would help a free movement of goods that bear the Ecolabel. Indeed, global players who comply with the Ecolabel criteria will be able to market their products without being hindered by local Ecolabel awards that coexist with the European Ecolabel flower. The European Ecolabel will be an adequate guarantee for the environmental performance of a food product which would not put into question local preferences while it promotes an EU-wide standard of low environmental impact.

5.5.5   The proposal does not make clear which types of food product the Commission believes should be covered by the regulation. The reference to Regulation 178/2002 in the second paragraph of Article 2 does not clarify the issue, since the article does not provide a definition of processed food products. Regulations 852/2004 and 853/2004, on the other hand, do provide a definition both processed and fresh food products. It is also unclear what is meant by ‘products of fishing and aquaculture’.

There is a serious risk that the proposal would weaken the Ecolabel's trustworthiness. Also, we cannot support the inclusion of food products, as proposed in the present draft.

5.5.6   The link made between the regulation on organic production and the Ecolabel regulation seems inappropriate. The wording in Article 9(10) could lead to confusion among consumers, instead of helping them to make an environmentally sensible choice. There is a real risk that the trustworthiness of both labels will be weakened. For instance, it does not make sense that a given product can be labelled in three ways: (1) with the organic label and the Ecolabel; (2) with the organic label alone; or (3) with the Ecolabel, along with information stating that the Ecolabel only covers processing, packaging and transport.

5.5.7   It is apparent from Article 6(4) that the emphasis of the Ecolabel criteria lies on the environment, including health and safety aspects. It is important to clarify what the term health means in this regulation. In the case of food products, this raises a whole range of problem issues relating to health and diet. These need to be dealt with in specific terms, including the issue of how information is to be provided to consumers.

The above-mentioned problems should be resolved before any statement is made on whether, and in what way, food products should be covered by the Ecolabel.

5.5.8   In this context, the Committee believes that packaging should only be included in the ecolabel criteria, where it is relevant for the individual product group: packaging should not be seen as a ‘product’ because it cannot be considered in isolation from the product it contains.

Brussels, 26 February 2009.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI


(1)  OJ C 296, 29.9.1997, p. 77.

(2)  Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on Eco-friendly production, OJ C 224/1, 30.8.2008.

(3)  Life cycle thinking is the process of taking into account, as far as possible, all resources consumed and all environmental and health implications that are associated with the life cycle of a product (good or service), considering for instance the extraction of resources, production, use, transport, recycling, and waste treatment and disposal. This process helps to avoid the ‘shifting of burdens’, i.e. of impacts or resource consumption, among life cycle stages, geographic areas, and environmental and human health problem fields, such as Climate Change, Summer Smog, Acid Rain, or Resource Depletion etc. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is the standardised quantitative method for compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs and the potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle (ISO 14040 ff).

(4)  The importance of an ecolabel scheme has already been emphasised in earlier policy documents such as the Commission's Communication on Integrated Product Policy and the 6th Environmental Action Programme.

(5)  Council Directive 67/548/EEC of 27 June 1967 on the approximation of laws, regulations and administrative provisions relating to the classification, packaging and labelling of dangerous substances.

(6)  The European Ecolabel is a type I Ecolabel. An ISO Type I ecolabel is an ecolabel which respects the ISO 14024 requirements.

(7)  Article 2 (scope) of the EC proposal reads: ‘Concerning food products as defined in Article 2 of Regulation (EC) No 178/2002 of the European Parliament and of the Council, it shall only apply to processed food and to the products of fishing and aquaculture.’