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MEA Bulletin - Guest Article No. 95 - Thursday, 24 June 2010
Voluntary environmental or sustainability labeling for sustainable consumption and production
Paper by Liazzat Rabbiosi and Patrick Clairzier, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Sustainable Consumption and Production Branch
Voluntary environmental or sustainability labeling and standards facilitate the selection of products and services according to specific environmental and social criteria, with the focus on improving the overall performance of products throughout their life-cycle. These tools have become a market reality in response to consumers’ perceived desire to protect the environment in a complex marketplace that makes it difficult for them to determine the impact of their choices. They communicate information about hidden impacts of products and use the social and environmental values of consumers to introduce incentives for producers to improve their manufacturing processes. For these reasons, they are often referred to as consumer information tools. Moreover, in view of the increasingly global interconnections of economic and supply chains, they have the potential for environmental upgrading across the value chain of a product. Looking at the entire life cycle of products, they may initiate a process through which firms in the production chain innovate so as to acquire and maintain an existing advantage in terms of environmental performance.

From the policy perspective, consumer information tools are based on the principles of modern governance such as transparency, participation and shared responsibility between government, private sector and civil society to contribute to reaching sustainability policy objectives. The perceived implementation gap of command-and-control policies in the 1970-1980s created the need for a new type of policy tools and a paradigm of systematic and integrated policy approaches, as outlined in Agenda 21 of the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. At this significant juncture, there was recognition that major environmental problems, such as climate change and biodiversity loss, were due to unsustainable patterns of consumption and production.

Ten years later, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in 2002, stakeholders reaffirmed their commitment to the Rio principles and the full implementation of Agenda 21 with the introduction and agreement to the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation (JPOI). The JPOI called for stakeholders to “develop and adopt, where appropriate, on a voluntary basis, effective, transparent, verifiable, non-misleading and non-discriminatory consumer information tools to provide information relating to sustainable consumption and production.” Within the 10-year framework of programmes outlined in the JPOI, specific recommendations were made in regard to providing sources of financial and technical assistance and capacity-building for developing countries. Chapter III of the Johannesburg Plan called on stakeholders to “encourage and promote the development of a 10-year framework of programmes in support of regional and national initiatives to accelerate the shift towards sustainable consumption and production.” This call to action launched the Marrakech Process, which “is a global multi-stakeholder platform to promote the implementation of policies and capacity building on sustainable consumption and production (SCP)” as an input and basis for elaboration of the 10-year framework of programmes on SCP. The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development is the high-level forum for sustainable development within the United Nations to review the progress of the JPOI and provides policy guidance at the local, national, regional and global levels and is focusing on SCP patterns in its thematic cluster for 2010-2011.

The increasing interest in market-driven product information tools as one mechanism for tackling unsustainable consumption and production challenges has led to the development of multiple schemes and systems around the world. There is often little coherence between information tools, which differ widely in scope, approach and methodology. Different methodologies lead to different results. Different approaches create additional transaction costs and scope for false and unverified claims (‘greenwashing’) and undermine the intended effects of ensuring continuous environmental improvement. Moreover, the proliferation of different labels and claims creates a potential for consumer confusion and eventual mistrust. From the global perspective, these tools represent a contentious issue. Developing countries often view voluntary standards and labeling as disguised barriers to trade.

It is in response to these challenges that UNEP has initiated a number of activities to advance sustainable consumption and production principles globally through the use of credible and functional consumer-oriented information tools. As one example, UNEP is implementing the “Enabling developing countries to seize ecolabeling opportunities” project with the objective of fostering the use of ecolabeling in developing countries. UNEP has designed this project with the goal of responding to key challenges faced by developing countries in order to benefit from ecolabeling opportunities. Businesses and especially SMEs need better information and technical expertise to meet the criteria of various ecolabeling programmes, to change their production practices and establish sustainable enterprises. Governments of those countries need to understand which policies and tools support ecolabeling and how to integrate it within the SCP framework. This knowledge is also important for their effective participation in international negotiations that take place around environmental and sustainable labeling in ISO, WTO and the like. 

The project intends to fill in the gaps through raising awareness, building capacity of both industry and government stakeholders, and providing technical assistance to specific companies willing to get ecolabel awards. At the conclusion of the project, it is expected that a number of export products from India, China, Kenya, Ethiopia, South Africa, Mexico and Brazil will be awarded an ecolabel and enhance market access for their sustainable products in global and European markets. Moreover, the project seeks to develop a roadmap towards greater cooperation and harmonization among ecolabeling schemes.

Currently, no commonly applied and coherent framework exists to provide the baseline against which sustainability claims can be defined and communicated. Various organizations have worked towards harmonization of standards and reconciliation of approaches. They generally also differ in methodologies and represent different interests. UNEP proposes to create a global collaborative process to identify, agree and promote common principles on how to communicate sustainability information in a legitimate and practical way. The principles should take into account key impacts along the product life cycle to avoid burden shifting and respond to the long-term challenges of sustainability. UNEP will involve various stakeholder groups that share a common interest in simplifying and synergizing the realm of consumer information tools that incorporate their different perspectives, needs and aspirations. 

UNEP recognizes voluntary labeling and standards as the critical connection between sustainable consumption and production. It is only by establishing dynamic and transparent institutional mechanisms that are accepted by all stakeholders and providing capacity building and technical assistance that these tools can contribute to the needed change in SCP patterns of developed and developing countries. 

For more information, please contact:

Ms. Liazzat Rabbiosi
Sustainable Consumption and Production Branch
Division of Technology, Industry and Economics
United Nations Environment Programme
15 rue de Milan, 75441 Paris Cedex 09
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