Anti-Green-Washing-Soft-Policy: A Comparison of Transnational Eco-Labeling

By Gabriela Steier and Madhvvi Mehta

What are Eco-Labels?

Eco-labels are soft-policy examples of progressive environmental policy with a consumer-empowering component. In fact, eco-labels illustrate powerful tools of consumer-driven environmental protection and show that green-washing can be stopped through soft law approaches. ISO standards, for instance, provide “practical tools for companies and organizations of all kinds looking to manage their environmental responsibilities” while incorporating tools and strategies from over 21000 International Standards. This article first discusses the leading German eco-labelling schemes, Blue Angel and Grüne Punk (German for green dot), and then compares India’s failed eco-mark in light of the current status of the Indian market.

Germany’s Eco-Labels

The best known eco-label from Germany is the Blue Angel (see figure 1), which has been around since 1978. Coined as “a market-based, voluntary instrument of environmental policy,” the Blue Angel “has become a recognized label delivering a high level of guidance.” The logo combines elements of the the United Nations Environment Programme and the protection goals, climate, water, resources and other environmental and health concerns. Products bearing the Blue Angel range from hard ware, paints, food packages to energy and heating appliances.

Over the past four decades, the Blue Angel has become a generally-recognized tool to mark environmental consciousness. In fact, a German survey found that 92 percent of consumers are aware of the Blue Angel and a whopping 37 percent base their purchase decisions on products bearing the logo. An exemplary scheme, this eco-marks gains credibility by a host of partners and supporters, namely Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety (Bundesministerium für Umwelt, Naturschutz, Bau und Reaktorsicherheit), the owner of the label, Federal Environmental Agency (German Umweltbundesamt), which sets forth compliance criteria, and the independent decision-making body called the Environmental Label Jury, which collaborates with RAL gGmbH, the sounding board for eco-label stakeholders. The Blue Angel is leading the way in eco-labeling and functions as a role model for the ISO 14024 standard with the goal to stop green-washing.

EcoLabeling1
Figure 1 The Blue Angel Eco Mark. According to Blue Angel, this eco-mark showcases the trusted blue emblem of the United Nations Environment Programme. The Blue Angel “indicates the significant environmental benefits offered by the labelled products” and “criteria for each individual product group always take into account all relevant environmental aspects.” Source: Blue Angel website. For educational use only.

Another major German eco-label is Der Grüne Punkt, which stands “for a sustainable economy, one that keeps recyclables in closed circuits” with “the aim . . . to avoid wasting raw materials, and to minimize the impact on the climate and the natural environment.” One of its hallmarks is the closed-cycle economy through the dual-system. In this system, recycling of raw materials is the focus and has brought tremendous improvements:
“In total, by recovering lightweight packaging, the dual system reduces environmental impact by 1.9 million tons of CO2 equivalents per annum. From 1990 to 2014, . . . the contribution towards climate protection made by recycling paper, cardboard and cartons was upsized by a factor of 7.5, and is nowadays running at a good 350,000 tons of CO2 equivalents. Glass recycling additionally reduced the environmental impact by almost 800,000 tons of CO2 equivalents. The total contribution made by recycling lightweight packaging, glass, and paper, cardboard and cartons thus comes to 3.1 million tons of CO2 equivalents.”
Despite the vast availability of eco-labeling models in the ISO database and Germany’s success stories, many countries fail to achieve any meaningful methods to stop green-washing through credible and reliable soft policy.

India’s Eco-Mark

On 21 February 1991, the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, launched its ‘eco-labeling’ scheme known as ‘Ecomark‘. The objective was to help consumers identify products that had no significant impact on the environment right from extraction of raw materials to final disposal; and gradually bring about a value change. The scheme borrowed elements from Germany’s ‘Blue Angel‘ program and Canada’s ‘Environmental Choice‘ program that took into account the views of the Government, industry and the consumer.

Hidden beneath the blueprint was a broader agenda. India was on the brink of economic liberalization and stood at the threshold of global markets. The Ecomark label was designed to demonstrate that India was ready to face international competition with products that met global environmental standards.

Unfortunately, the efforts by the Indian Government have not been successful. Some of the reasons of the eco-mark failure range from poor consumer awareness to lack of business incentives and lobby sabotage. The Indian population is largely semi-literate. With poor consumer empowerment and inadequate publicity, the label does not affect buying choices. In fact, the few who were awarded the label themselves rarely display it, because it makes no difference to their business. An initiative such as this is not likely to achieve success without a powerful social marketing effort. The Government made weak efforts to create awareness through magazines like ‘Wista Eco-Mark‘, but those yielded little or no success. To make matters worse, some powerful business lobbies, such as the detergent industry, an industry with an inherently environmentally unfriendly track record, worked overtime to derail the eco-mark scheme. They used their political clout and the lack of consumer awareness to their advantage. This added to the confusion and lack of communication between the Bureau of Indian Standards which is the implementing authority, and the various ministries.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests must address these issues by increasing consumer awareness. ICT must be leveraged to educate the consumer. Educated consumers will help drive demand which will ultimately impel businesses to follow in line. Furthermore, businesses that demonstrate that they are environment-friendly need incentives to establish themselves amidst fierce market competition. A possible solution may be a small-scale implementation of the eco-mark in just certain product groups and the lessons learned could later on be translated into greater schemes. There is, however, no doubt that it needs to be revitalized with a new Eco-labeling Board and a fresh perspective. The importance of eco-labels cannot be over-emphasized if India wants to compete with large players in the global arena.

To conclude, the success of eco-labeling depends on the awareness level of the population, the efforts by the respective government to market the concept and the support of regulatory authorities to influence consumer decisions. It may just be a matter of time, but it is clear that all countries will need to work in this direction if green-washing is to be addressed collectively.

Gabriela Steier

is an LLM Fellow in Food and Agriculture Law at the Vermont Law School. Prior to joining the Vermont Law School, she worked as a Legal Fellow at the Center For Food Safety in Washington, D.C., where she focused on food safety, public health, pollinator protection, animal welfare, international trade, and GMO issues domestically and in the European Union. Gabriela is co-founder and partner of Food Law International (FLI), LLP, a new organization that promotes scholarship in international sustainable food law and policy. She also edited the forthcoming textbooks International Food Law and Policy and International Farm Animal, Wildlife and Food Safety Law. Since 2015, she has been co-teaching a breakthrough new course in food law and policy at the Duquesne University, School of Law in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As Visiting Professor at the University of Perugia, Italy, Gabriela teaches EU-US comparative food and environmental law at the Department of Political Sciences.
She can be contacted at gabrielasteier@vermontlaw.edu or g.steier@foodlawinternational.com.

Madhvvi Mehta

is an Environmental lawyer and writer in India. Her focus is Genetically Modified Food, FSMA, food advertising and food security. She is partner in Shree Foodz Legal, LLP, a food legal consulting firm. She is an LLM student of Vermont Law School. Her contact information is madhvvimehta@gmail.com or foodz@shreefoodzlegal.com