NGOs slam EU detergent industry agreement

Binding rules, mandatory ecolabelling, needed to match Swedish performance, says EEB

A voluntary environmental agreement reached by EU and detergent manufacturers last year lacks teeth and should be replaced with binding rules and mandatory ecolabelling, NGO alliance, the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) said yesterday.

Struck last summer between the European Commission and the International Association of Soap Producers (AISE) and running over five years, the agreement includes specific targets for improving the environmental performance of laundry detergents (ENDS Daily 23 July 1998). But based on a study by a partner organisation, the Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, the EEB now claims, that it "falls far short of what industry can do if it would be genuinely concerned about the environment".

Swedish consumers reduced their per capita consumption of household laundry detergent by 18% between 1988 and 1996, the group says, whereas the voluntary agreement calls only for a 10% reduction. A target for a 10% cut in packaging has also been far exceeded in Sweden, which achieved a 45% reduction, according to the study. And instead of a targeted 10% cut in the content of poorly biodegradable organic ingredients, Sweden achieved cuts ranging from 100% (in the case of pigments, fluorescent whitening agents and the complexing agent EDTA), through 50% (phosphonate) to 15% for silicone defoamers.

A lot of pressure for improvements in Sweden came from the strong regional ecolabelling system, the EEB says. About 90% of household detergents were labelled over the period studied, providing a "shining example" of the system's effectiveness. The EEB is calling for ecolabelling to be made mandatory in the EU, and suggests that manufacturers should in the meantime apply for a national or pan-EU ecolabel, as a "goodwill gesture."

An AISE spokesperson defended its agreement with the EU as a "pioneering example of voluntary tools." She said the programme was well on target. AISE is to discuss the EEB's criticisms next week, but the spokesperson said it was difficult to extrapolate from the Swedish case to the whole of Europe because of "huge variations in consumer habits which have to be respected."

The EEB is also criticising detergent manufacturers for "irresponsible and indifferent behaviour" in selling what it claims to be less environmentally friendly versions of their products in eastern Europe. The damage done by these products was greater there, due to poorer sewerage, and yet they were not proportionately cheaper, a spokesperson said.

Follow Up:
EEB, tel: +32 2 289 1090; Swedish Society for Nature Conservation, tel: +46 31 711 6450; AISE, tel: +32 2 230 8371.

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