WHY EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL LA­BELS MAT­TER

Eco­la­bels pro­vide re­as­sur­ance that pur­chases meet a ro­bust, agreed en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dard, but buy­ers and sell­ers must en­sure the claims are le­git­i­mate.

NZ Business - - CONTENTS -

We live in a world of pack­aged con­sumer and busi­ness prod­ucts – hun­dreds of thou­sands of them. And as con­sumers or busi­ness buy­ers we face choices for just about ev­ery­thing we want to buy. We make that de­ci­sion for a range of rea­sons: price, qual­ity, avail­abil­ity, or safety, for ex­am­ple.

But in­creas­ingly, we’re bring­ing an eth­i­cal di­men­sion to the process. We seek as­sur­ances that the mak­ing and de­liv­ery of the prod­uct hasn’t come at the ex­pense of com­mu­ni­ties or en­vi­ron­ments. To give us that re­as­sur­ance, en­vi­ron­men­tal la­belling (eco­la­bel­ing for short) was de­vel­oped, and there are a range of la­bels around that at­test to the en­vi­ron­men­tal or sus­tain­abil­ity cre­den­tials of the prod­ucts we buy.

Mak­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal claims is fine; the is­sue arises when the claim is bo­gus or mis­lead­ing. This is more com­monly seen in a milder form – ‘green­wash’, where the prod­uct is clothed in en­vi­ron­men­tal ter­mi­nol­ogy, sug­gest­ing – hint­ing per­haps – that it has passed the ‘en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly’ test when no such proof ex­ists.

Some­times, the pro­cesses don’t work. A clas­sic re­cent ex­am­ple was the con­tro­versy over pur­port­edly ‘free-range’ eggs which turned out to be from a caged-hen farm. The egg mid­dle­man sup­ply­ing the su­per­mar­kets got his prod­uct from a sup­plier who usu­ally sourced the eggs from free-range providers, but at times of high demand got them from caged-hen farms – with­out ap­par­ently telling the mid­dle­man. Cue: me­dia and public out­rage.

At the other end of the scale, the motoring world was stunned

re­cently by the ac­tions of Volk­swa­gen who owned up even­tu­ally to cor­rupt prac­tices around the de­lib­er­ate pro­duc­tion of false emis­sions test re­sults for their diesel cars. They claimed clean­ness, but the cars were ac­tu­ally pol­lut­ing – and the fines are in the bil­lions of dol­lars.

Com­mon to both is­sues was clearly a lack of in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion. No one was polic­ing the claim that the eggs were all free-range, or that the VW diesel en­gine emis­sions-test­ing was bona fide. The ads and the pack­ag­ing said one thing, but the public had no way of know­ing if it was true.

A claim has to be ver­i­fi­able; and it needs to be in­de­pen­dent ver­i­fi­ca­tion. And it’s too risky to put the fox in charge of the hen­house, if you’ll for­give the metaphor.

Ver­i­fi­ca­tion also pays big div­i­dends for the com­pany with the prod­ucts, by re­mov­ing or re­duc­ing the sorts of risks – both rep­u­ta­tional and fi­nan­cial – that were re­vealed in the eggs and VW cases. While the scale of the re­spec­tive fines is likely to be a mile apart (the egg case has yet to go to court) it was still a ma­jor ‘hit’ for both the eggman and the car­maker.

NOT ALL ECO­LA­BELS ARE CRE­ATED EQUAL

Most of the ma­jor eco­la­bels do pro­vide a strong el­e­ment of ver­i­fi­ca­tion; their as­sess­ments are in­de­pen­dent, ro­bust and reg­u­larly re­peated to en­sure there’s no slip­page in stan­dards.

Not all tell the whole story, how­ever; la­bels may only cover cer­tain as­pects of a prod­uct, such as its man­u­fac­ture. En­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts can oc­cur through­out the life cy­cle of a prod­uct, from the eth­i­cal sourc­ing of raw ma­te­ri­als through pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­bu­tion, to final dis­posal at the end of the prod­uct’s life.

Each stage raises en­vi­ron­men­tal ques­tions; the best prod­ucts an­swer them pos­i­tively.

En­vi­ron­men­tal Choice New Zealand – our la­bel – is a Type 1 eco­la­bel, which means it does cover the life cy­cle of the prod­ucts we cer­tify. Our au­dit­ing is in­de­pen­dent, reg­u­larly re­peated and strin­gent. But it’s fair to say the en­vi­ron­ment for eco­la­bels in New Zealand is a rel­a­tively re­laxed one com­pared with our sis­ter or­gan­i­sa­tions in many ju­ris­dic­tions over­seas. It’s of­ten a “nice-to”, rather than a “need-to”.

Eco­la­bels are thriv­ing where gov­ern­ments take a lead in terms of man­dat­ing sus­tain­able prac­tices and stan­dards in the pur­chas­ing done by the public sec­tor. As yet, there is a re­luc­tance by our Gov­ern­ment to take a strong stance and lead by ex­am­ple in that area.

The public mood here and over­seas is in­creas­ingly around seek­ing bet­ter re­as­sur­ances that prod­ucts aren’t harm­ing the en­vi­ron­ment. Con­cerns over global warm­ing and is­sues like pol­luted water­ways in this coun­try con­tinue to fuel calls (par­tic­u­larly from the new gen­er­a­tion com­ing into the work­force, con­tem­plat­ing home own­er­ship and start­ing a fam­ily) for bet­ter en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and be­hav­iours.

The ‘100% green’ im­age of New Zealand has taken a bat­ter­ing glob­ally in re­cent times – the BBC, for ex­am­ple, cit­ing Massey Univer­sity ev­i­dence show­ing 90 per­cent of New Zealand’s low­land rivers were pol­luted.

VALUING SUS­TAIN­ABLE CHOICES

The shift in public sen­ti­ment was strongly borne out in the 2016 Col­mar Brun­ton “Bet­ter Fu­tures” Re­port, which showed more peo­ple are putting value on sus­tain­able choices. Sus­tain­abil­ity is in­creas­ingly in­flu­enc­ing buy­ing be­hav­iour across all cat­e­gories.

The fastest mover in the past 12 months was the cos­met­ics and per­sonal-care in­dus­try, show­ing we are start­ing to care more about what goes onto our skin, the body’s largest or­gan.

Other find­ings from the re­port in­cluded: • 71 per­cent of Ki­wis are will­ing to pay a bit more to get the best or­ganic,

sus­tain­able and eth­i­cally pro­duced prod­ucts avail­able; • 83 per­cent of New Zealan­ders would stop buy­ing a com­pany’s prod­ucts

if they heard about the com­pany be­ing ir­re­spon­si­ble or un­eth­i­cal; while • 72 per­cent of em­ploy­ees said it was im­por­tant to them to work for a com­pany that was so­cially and en­vi­ron­men­tally re­spon­si­ble. It’s no sur­prise to us here in the En­vi­ron­men­tal Choice of­fice that our li­censee Eco­s­tore was found to be the coun­try’s top sus­tain­able brand leader in the same sur­vey. Hav­ing in­de­pen­dent proof that you’re re­spon­si­bly man­ag­ing your en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts dur­ing the mak­ing of your prod­ucts earns you brownie points with con­sumers.

We don’t have to take the brand’s word for it. The dis­tinc­tive white tick on black logo on a bot­tle of laundry cleaner cre­ates peace of mind that the brand has passed strin­gent bench­marks.

Eco­la­bels can pro­vide con­sumers and busi­nesses with re­as­sur­ance that what they have pur­chased meets a ro­bust, agreed en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dard, but buy­ers – and sell­ers – need to en­sure the claims are le­git­i­mate, and not get left with egg on their face.

“The en­vi­ron­ment for eco­la­bels in New Zealand is a rel­a­tively re­laxed one com­pared with our sis­ter or­gan­i­sa­tions in many ju­ris­dic­tions over­seas. It's of­ten a ‘nice-to', rather than a ‘need-to'.”

FRANCESCA LIPSCOMBE IS GEN­ERAL MAN­AGER OF THE NEW ZEALAND ECOLABELLING TRUST, WHICH AD­MIN­IS­TERS THE GOV­ERN­MENT- OWNED EN­VI­RON­MEN­TAL CHOICE NEW ZEALAND ECO­LA­BEL, THE ONLY TYPE 1 ECO­LA­BEL IN NEW ZEALAND.

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