European Commission Proposes EU-Wide Standard for Assessing Product Footprints

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By Stephen Gardner  

BRUSSELS--The European Union should adopt a common standard for assessing the environmental footprint of products and organizations, according to a proposal published by the European Commission April 9.

The standard would not be binding, but EU member states should endorse it to foster an EU “single market for green products,” the Commission said.

The bloc’s top environment official, Commissioner Janez Potocnik, said in a statement that implementation of the standard would boost the market for green products by “giving people reliable and comparable information about the environmental impacts and credentials of products and organizations.”

Potocnik added that the standard would also be a clear indication of the environmental footprint of a product or company in a situation in which there are currently “literally hundreds” of green certification and labeling schemes, which “create confusion and increasingly also cynicism” about the green claims of products. Almost half of consumers do not trust environmental claims made for products, Potocnik said.

A European standard would be a “single reference method” that would reduce the costs for companies wishing to obtain certification, and would be clearer and more reliable for consumers, Potocnik added.

Lifecycle Assessment

The Commission said companies wishing to prove the environmental credentials of their products must currently “apply different schemes in the different national markets.” It cited varying programs in France, Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

The EU-wide standard would be based on measurement of the environmental footprint of a product or organization using lifecycle assessment, and would “reward the most resource efficient products and the most resource efficient organizations on the EU market,” Potocnik said.

He added that the standard would be a “harmonized, robust and user-orientated instrument” based on “solid research experience and testing of the methodology based on lifecycle analysis. The Commission has been working on the application of lifecycle thinking for more than ten years.”

The Commission proposals said that lifecycle assessment would take into account the environmental impact of products “from the extraction of raw materials, to their production, distribution, use, up to the end of life (including reuse, recycling and recovery).”

Lifecycle assessment is already used in some standards, such as the ISO 14000 standards promoted by the International Organization for Standardization.

Test Period Planned

Commission environment spokesman Joe Hennon told BNA that the Commission would publish by the end of April a call for volunteers so that the application of the standard could be tested over a three-year period.

The standard would be intended to make the environmental footprints of products and organizations “comparable across the EU,” Hennon said.

He added that although the standard will be voluntary, the Commission hopes to secure the endorsement of EU environment ministers who will meet April 22-23.

The standard would operate alongside the existing EU Ecolabel, which is a voluntary certification scheme that can be applied to products and services if they meet “best available” environmental standards (32 INER 305, 4/15/09).

Reactions Vary

A group of industry associations, including the International Association for Soaps, Detergents, and Maintenance Products; Cosmetics Europe,;and FoodDrink Europe, said in a statement that they were “supportive” of the standard.

The three-year pilot phase would “make sure that the objectives [of the standard] can be met through adequate, resource efficient, and consumer-relevant tools,” the group said.

However, other industry groups protested ahead of the Commission’s proposal about the use of lifecycle assessment as the basis for the standard.

The European Engineering Industries Association and the European Automobile Manufacturing Association in a March 14 letter to the Commission said that lifecycle assessment methodologies are too imprecise to allow meaningful comparisons of the environmental impacts of products.

Stephane Arditi, senior policy officer for products and waste for the European Environmental Bureau, an advocacy group, told BNA that in proposing the standard, the Commission’s “intentions are good without any doubts.”

However, more stringent requirements should be introduced, such as “prohibiting any green claim not supported by a standard methodology,” and “requiring third party inspection for claims,” Arditi said.

By Stephen Gardner  


Information about the European Commission’s proposed EU standard for green products is available at http://bit.ly/ZjQi7W.