The EU eco-labelling scheme was established in 1992, but has made painfully slow progress in developing product group criteria and persuading manufacturers to apply for the label.
The European Commission hoped that changes to the EU Regulation on eco-labelling in 2000 would broaden the scheme's appeal. They allowed retailers and service providers to apply for the label for own-brand products, sought to make it more compatible with national schemes, and speeded up the criteria development process by transferring responsibility from the Commission to a new EU Eco-labelling Board.
Since then the scheme has gradually built up a reasonable portfolio of eligible product groups, but uptake remains limited.
The Regulation will be revised for a second time in 2005. As a first step, consultancy ERM recently produced a discussion paper for the Commission on key challenges facing the scheme. Additional papers are expected on its role as compared to other types of on-product environmental claims, and the scheme's future direction in terms of its strategy, scope and brand image.
ERM's paper warns that, with interest in the scheme 'still far below expectations', the revision just two years away and up to ten new countries due to join the EU in May 2004, the label faces several challenges which, 'if not addressed properly, will lead to the demise of eco-labelling efforts at European level.'
Crucially, it says, business interest needs to be stimulated by streamlining the criteria development process, speeding up the application procedure and further harmonisation of criteria between different labels. The popular belief that if only more people recognised and better understood the label they would buy more eco-labelled products is mistaken, says ERM. Instead, success critically depends on the label being highly visible to consumers on eco-labelled products on the shelves.
To cope with up to ten new Member States, the scheme's administrative procedures must be simplified, ERM says - though the paper leaves the details for future discussion.
The scheme also needs a clear, consistent strategy linking it to other EU environmental policies and guide decisions on which product groups to tackle and which environmental impacts to address.
Discussions on the scheme's revision should ask whether the label should remain a 'badge of excellence' attainable by only the least environmentally damaging products, or should be more inclusive, ERM believes. They should also ask if its appeal should be broadened by including issues such as animal testing or fair trade.
The paper also asks whether the scheme's structure should be drastically changed - for example, by allowing businesses to set criteria or appointing a private body to run the scheme.
Meanwhile, the UK Environment Department's Advisory Committee on Consumer Products and the Environment is continuing to explore other types of eco-label and environmental rating systems which could be used on a national basis in specific sectors.
ACCPE's third annual report, due this summer, is expected to include a recommendation that BRE's EcoHomes environmental rating system be extended to cover all homes.
Launched in 2000, the voluntary scheme rates housing projects on a four-level scale from 'pass' to 'excellent.' The scheme could be extended by adding it to the energy efficiency information that home owners may soon be required to provide under the statutory framework for sellers' packs.
DEFRA is also developing supplementary guidance to the Government's voluntary green claims code which will include sector-specific advice. Introduced in 1998, the code has failed to significantly reduce misleading claims. But the Government has rejected calls by consumer groups and ACCPE to make it statutory.
The sector-specific guidance should be available by July, and will cover four areas: greetings cards, wording to explain the biodegradability of cleaning products, the peat content of growing media, and recycling claims on electronic products.