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Eco-labeling

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Since the late 1980s, there has been a growing demand from consumers for products that do less harm to the environment. This is reflected in the emergence of products such as non-toxic household cleaning agents, chlorine-free paper, recycled oil, and mercury-free batteries.

Public willingness to use buying power as a tool to protect the environment provides manufacturers with an opportunity to develop new products. But how does a consumer judge a product's environmental impact? How does one know what to buy and what to avoid? And are manufacturers spreading confusion by selectively promoting certain environmental attributes over others?

In other words, how should one assess the validity of a statement about a product's environmental impacts?

The need for rules governing eco-labeling has led to concerted efforts to develop labeling protocols, or standards worthy of public trust.

Public or private?

Both governments and the private sector have become involved in eco-labeling programs. Government involvement in eco-labeling schemes can:

  • Improve the program's economic stability, legal protection and credibility in the eyes of manufacturers and consumers;
  • Provide more dependable, long-term resources;
  • Overcome high start-up and compliance monitoring costs, thus allowing for greater participation;
  • Allow for the incorporation of international standards;
  • Provide better accountability and technical expertise;
  • Ensure public involvement in setting new standards.

But corporate involvement in eco-labeling schemes is also important. In particular, private-sector programmes:

  • May be less vulnerable to shifting political priorities and budget constraints;
  • May be able to set more stringent standards than government agencies in some product sectors, since they do not have to take into account employment impacts;
  • Are an effective means of pressurizing overseas companies to comply with environmental regulations.

Credibility

It is essential that the bodies which assign eco-labels are properly accredited. It is they who will enforce discipline in eco-labeling programs, and consequently they should be above suspicion. They may have to disclose their finances, evaluation criteria, standard setting and monitoring procedures in order to ensure trust. In addition, certifiers should monitor the use of their certification marks, and be allowed to take aggressive action against companies whose products no longer merit certification.

To avoid conflicts of interest, manufacturers should not be allowed to operate labeling schemes.

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