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European Commission

Janez Potočnik

European Commissioner for Environment

Why do we need Ecolabels

Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) Conference/Brussels

5 November 2013

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to open the works of the 2013 Global Ecolabelling Network Conference.

Consumers want to make the right choices: to reward companies that conduct their business and provide products in ways that are environmentally responsible. Recent global data from 26 countries shows that 86 % of consumers were concerned with climate change and 71 % said they would avoid buying goods that travelled long distances. Other studies show that more than half of consumers "seek out eco-products or consider environmental and social aspects in their purchases".

But in the words of Kermit the frog "it’s not easy being green".

All of you know from your work on developing credible environmental labels just how much citizens all over the world are bombarded with information. There are more than 400 environmental labels used worldwide, some trustworthy, some not; some relying on robust methodologies, some not; some are clear, some less clear. Who do you believe?

Consumers are increasingly confused. 48 % of the Europeans we asked told us that they just don't trust claims regarding environmental performance of products.

People simply misunderstand phrases such as "green" or "zero emissions" – thus giving a number of products a greater "green halo" than they might deserve. Worse still, some environmental claims are designed deliberately to mislead consumers.

And this confusion makes it harder for business to be green too. Not only are their attempts to communicate with their customers being undermined by greenwashing or free-riders; the proliferation of labels means extra costs and administrative burdens.

In Europe our Single Market should allow producers to access a market of more than half-a-billion consumers, but still companies have to apply different methods in different Member States. This is a brake on the development of our fast-growing low-carbon and eco-industries and on the "green and healthy lifestyle" market segment.

There is obviously a "trust gap" among consumers. This is not surprising when, according to the Consumer Eurobarometer 2011 one third of consumers in Europe encounter misleading information about the environmental impact of a product.

These problems mainly come from self-declared claims, which are the vast majority of environmental claims.

Consumer organisations have asked the Commission for an effective ban on misleading green claims – and increasingly we see similar requests from the business sector.

Truthfulness of environmental marketing is clearly important. Fair competition is essential to a level playing field for businesses, to ensure the proper functioning of the Single Market in the European Union.

So where do citizens look to find credible green marketing? Our surveys show that they are most likely to turn to consumer reports, certification seals or labels on products, and the list of ingredients on products, rather than trusting company-driven marketing. The same citizens also clearly say that they trust labels only if they have been verified by independent third parties or if they are part of a Government scheme.

Credible labels, such as the EU Ecolabel are essential to developing sustainable consumption and a sustainable economy.

Ecolabel criteria are also often used as a benchmark of environmental standards by the industry, even when they do not apply for it. That is why companies take such a keen interest in the development of our Ecolabel criteria.

But we are conscious that we need to strengthen the EU Ecolabel. And we need to collaborate with other equally strong environmental labels. This is the value of the Global Ecolabelling Network. We are part of this Network because we believe in the role that ISO Type-I labels can play in moving forward the sustainable consumption agenda.

We believe that there is a lot of good work that needs to be done in progressively increasing the reliability of all labels part of the GEN Network, strengthening their reliance on Life Cycle Assessment, improving the verification approaches, exploiting synergies in drafting common criteria among different labels. Once we will have all improved in this direction it will also become possible to reason in terms of mutual recognition of different high-quality labels.

In 2015 we will report to the European Parliament and the European Council about the status of implementation of the EU Ecolabel. We could also propose a revision of the Ecolabel Regulation. It is therefore now the time to think about which changes we want to implement. This Conference is an ideal occasion to contribute to this reflection and we will listen carefully.

We need a European Ecolabel that will continue to reward the environmental champions, but we also need a label that will push all the products entering the European market to become greener, through continuous improvement.

We want products fairly competing based on their verified environmental performances and not only on effective marketing campaigns.

In addition to our continued commitment to the European Ecolabel, we are also working in other ways to improve the reliability of environmental information provided to citizens in Europe:

  • First, we are further studying and monitoring the use of green marketing and claims across different markets;

  • Second, we have developed a harmonised method for the calculation of the environmental footprint of products along their life cycle. This will allow us to better define when a product is more or less "green" against a certain benchmark belonging to the same product category; and

  • Third, we are examining whether additional measures are needed and if so, for which markets.

Having a solid and reliable science-based method to calculate the environmental performance of products is an essential condition and basis to then develop and implement innovative environmental policies and tools. We are working intensively now on developing and applying footprinting methodologies.

We have just launched a three year pilot scheme where we will be working with about 25 sectors to develop specific common category rules to calculate the environmental performance of products sold in Europe. This will eventually enable consumers – and business partners – to compare the environmental performance of similar products.

Companies of all sizes from around the world, trade associations, governments, academia have volunteered to contribute to this pilot phase. We received many more proposals than we could take on board.

The information gathered during the pilot phase will be very important to shape our future product policies. I am sure that the EU Ecolabel, and indirectly other type-I labels, will greatly benefit from the full deployment of the European footprint methods, contributing to the shaping of a new generation of environmental labels.

When it comes to environmental footprinting approaches we estimate that through applying the European harmonised approach instead of the many existing different requirements, companies could benefit from a reduction in assessment costs, up to 30 to 40 %.

So far I have emphasized the important benefits of better information for consumers and for businesses, but to get a real understanding of the importance of the work that all of you here today are doing, I think it is important to remind ourselves of the bigger picture.

The whole concept behind the EU Ecolabel is very much linked to the more recent efforts done by the Commission to move Europe towards a more resource efficient growth path. It is no longer sufficient to depend upon laws to punish polluters for the worst excesses if we are to deal with the far more significant pressures on our resources and environment in the coming decades. We need to change the ways the markets work to incentivise resource efficiency and circular economy, and to internalise the real costs of our behaviour as producers and consumers.

As the world’s largest single market and home to many of the world's largest corporations the European Union is in an excellent position to make a difference.

We have set ourselves the objective in our economic strategy – Europe 2020 – of decoupling economic growth from resource use and environmental degradation and we have put in place a roadmap to achieve that aim.

Key to achieving that is boosting the resource efficiency performance of business, introducing innovative business models and addressing consumption patterns.

Next year we will publish a comprehensive package on resource efficiency and the circular economy. This will include an important review of targets in our waste legislation, but it will focus on all stages in the product life cycle, and on their inter-relationships. We will be taking a particularly close look at sustainable food, and sustainable buildings.

And before that, towards the end of this year we will be developing, with the Commission’s Enterprise & Industry Directorate-General, an action plan on green entrepreneurship centred on SMEs.

Ecolabels have an important role to play in this. It is up to us, through the work we do in our respective organisations, to make the change happen.

Ladies and gentlemen,

If we want to set the Planet on the path to sustainable consumption patterns and to growth based on smart use of resources, we have to make the markets work properly for the best products. Your views, your ideas and your actions are key, and I'm looking forward to the results of this GEN Conference to put down new stepping stone on our common road.

When preparing for today’s conference I have in my briefing noticed that the name of the room, hosting us today, is Vision+Clarity. Well chosen or a good coincidence ... doesn’t really matter. The fact is that that is exactly what we need: Vision and Clarity.

Thank you for being here to help us shape that vision and that clarity ... and the change we need.

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