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Capturing Full Environmental and Social Impacts of Products

06 December 2011

Carbon footprint labels communicate just one aspect of a product's environmental impact. A recent study for the EU has called for an enhanced ecolabelling scheme, called "sustainable product indexing", that recognises the broader, complex social and environmental impacts of products.

Ecolabels are adopted voluntarily by manufacturers to assure consumers that a product has met strict production standards that improve a product's environmental impact.

To date, most ecolabels relate to a single environmental issue, such as the overall carbon content of a product or whether timber products have been harvested from sustainable forests.

The EU's Ecolabel is an important exception as a multi-criteria label.

In this study, the researchers suggest that certification, or ecolabelling programmes should instead encompass a wide range of effects of production on the environment and society.

This could help avoid any unintended change in behaviour of producers and consumers that result from focusing on just one single aspect of environmental impact. For example, in the US, corn-based ethanol receives a Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) label.

However, unintended consequences of growing corn for ethanol include intensive water use, oxygen-depletion in the Mississippi resulting from over-fertilisation and increased corn prices.

The study suggests a new approach that captures the environmental and societal impacts from a complex supply chain of production associated with a product.

A sustainable product index could achieve this by having one or only a few labels that cover all impacts of production on the environment, providing incentives to reduce environmental impacts of production, measuring the life cycle effects of production on the environment and by involving national and local governments, industry, consumer groups and non-governmental organisations in ecolabelling programmes.

Certification schemes need to recognise the effect that labelling has on consumer, manufacturer and retailer behaviour.

Labels can influence consumer purchases, business practices, and the technical development and innovation of products, which can all have different impacts on the environment and society.

The study makes a range of recommendations for policy makers planning ecolabelling programmes. Before policy makers introduce labelling legislation, there should be a greater understanding of the complex social and ecological relationship that results from labelling schemes.

International retailers, industries and businesses should be part of the group developing sustainable product indexing as they have global knowledge of the supply chain of products.

All social and environmental impacts in the production chain should be considered when developing a sustainable product index and national administrative structures should include a body responsible for ensuring sustainability is integrated with other policy initiatives.

Certification schemes should also contain incentives for innovation of sustainable product design and development in addition to setting standards that minimise the environmental risk posed by products.

Source: Golden, J.S., Dooley, K.J., Anderies, J.M. et al. (2010) Sustainable Product Indexing: Navigating the Challenge of Ecolabeling. Ecology and Society. 15(3): 8. This study is free to view online at: www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol15/iss3/art8

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