Ecolabels: the complexity behind the simplicity
Kate Harris, Good Environmental Choice Australia | 31 October 2016
I have sometimes fantasised about doing a PhD in sustainability leadership but I kept delaying, realising that a PhD requires a great deal of work and focus on the detail. The sheer volume of information to process, and the time commitment required to complete a PhD to a sufficiently high standard, have simply been prohibitive and taken me away from my core actions.
It’s a similar story when it comes to understanding the sustainability credentials of a product, and navigating through the ecolabels, life cycle assessments, environmental product declarations and other tools available to make sense of it all.
Recently it has come to my attention that there has been confusion as to what an ISO 14024 Type 1 ecolabel actually means, what it measures and what we mean when we talk about “the top 20 per cent”.
This does not refer to the top 20 per cent of financially performing businesses, and it is certainly not about not-for-profit organisations recouping costs by rewarding those making the most money. The “top 20 per cent” figure is globally referred to and supported by United Nations Environmental Principles NEP guidelines and it utilised across the majority, if not all, of the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN) members.
To be clear, this is about rewarding and promoting leading sustainable products and services. It is about rewarding those who do more than just meet the minimum standards – they rise above and exceed them, outperforming even the “good” products.
This is about shifting “good” to “great.”
It is about measuring sustainability performance through independent and credible processes. It’s about certifying and creating demand for those products and services that are within the top 20 per cent of what is possible for manufacturing or creating that product against stringent sustainability outcomes.
This is about measuring leadership – sustainability leadership.
The increase in the thirst for data and knowledge, and therefore the proliferation of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) in the industry, is understandable to some extent. It is confirmation of our need to grow awareness and education in the marketplace towards solutions for sustainable procurement and I support and understand the role they play.
Data and EPDs certainly have their place. Indeed, GECA has its own Environmentally Innovative Products standard that provides agility and adaptability for emerging markets in manufacturing through using the LCA/ EPD approach.
However, unless you or your procurement manager have a PhD in chemical and environmental science or engineering, it is unlikely that you will understand the relevance of the data you receive in an EPD report. Even then, you are left to make a significant sustainability procurement decision based on extraordinary amounts of detailed data.
The strength of top tier ecolabels lies in processing all the complexity and creating profound simplicity with a pass or fail test (measured against the top 20 per cent of what is possible to achieve).
In fact, the global UNEP initiative of Sustainable Consumption and Production still stands by this as their preferred global mechanism: giving preference to products that have voluntary third party certification that adopts a pass/ fail, top 20 per cent tiered approach wherever possible.
UNEP believes in the importance of this leading top 20 per cent so much that they are promoting this capability across South East Asia and recommending for all countries.
We don’t have the luxury of time.
Cop 21 Paris commitments require significant systemic change through all sectors to achieve sustainable outcomes within a decided and difficult time frame. And the longer we leave it, the worse it will be: both financially, and in the impacts we will face.
Consumers, businesses, governments and all end users need to know what to choose as part of their sustainable decision making across multiple areas of expertise.
I do not believe we have the knowledge, time or capability to be able to make these decisions through analysing all that data.
But perhaps procurement professionals have overlooked what lies beneath the somewhat simple “tick” or forgotten the complex process behind the scenes. This is why GECA is working on showing you all of the complexity that goes into certifying that top 20 per cent of leadership.
A tick is not just a tick – it’s the simplest way for you to know you are supporting sustainability for people and planet, for now and for our future.
And the good news? You won’t need a PhD to use it.
Kate Harris is chief executive officer of Good Environmental Choice Australia