UK steers course for integrated product policy

Environment minister calls on business to promote consumer choice, reduce product impacts

Businesses must do more to reduce the environmental impacts of products during their use and disposal, UK environment minister Michael Meacher said yesterday as he published a "blueprint" for an integrated policy on products and the environment.

Speaking at a conference in Birmingham, Mr Meacher said "it is not enough for a company to simply put its own house in order....Consumers are getting ever more concerned that good standards are being exercised right down the line."

He said there was a need to fundamentally transform markets to improve the overall environmental performance of products. "Changes of this kind can take time to work through," he said, "but the process has to be started now, and it needs to be kept moving."

An integrated product policy, the government notes in the consultation paper, requires a shift away from thinking solely about the environmental impacts during the manufacture of products to also considering impacts at other stages of their life-cycle and deciding where it will be most profitable to take action. "Increasingly," it says, "there will be areas where the pay-off in terms of environmental benefit will be proportionately much greater from consumption-related rather than process-related initiatives."

As a first step, the government challenges businesses to come forward with voluntary "product stewardship" initiatives. For instance, it says, they could adopt sectoral standards allowing consumers to compare the environmental impacts of products at the point of purchase. They could also coordinate campaigns to advise consumers on sensible product use and disposal.

It also encourages businesses to promote the environmental credentials of their products but advises them to back up any statements with independent verification and make sure they follow established standards on making green claims.

At the same time, the government is considering strengthening consumer protection laws to protect consumers from fraudulent claims. It also plans to improve enforcement of mandatory labels such as the EU's energy label for certain household appliances, compliance with which is reported to be poor throughout the EU (ENDS Daily 11 September).

A new multi-stakeholder panel on consumer products and the environment is to be set up to advise the government on further priorities for action and on mechanisms to encourage greener purchasing that could apply in the UK.

However, the government notes, that "to a considerable extent" the development of an integrated product policy will have to be carried out at EU level in order to ensure policies do not breach single market rules. The European Commission is planning a major conference on the issue in December, and ministers are expected to discuss the issue next year.

The government signals its continued support for the EU ecolabelling scheme despite its decision in the summer to shut down the body responsible for administering it in the UK (ENDS Daily 3 August). A revised scheme focusing on products that are traded throughout the EU could play an "important" role alongside national labelling schemes, it says, while proposing three ideas for new types of product awards in the UK.

Follow Up:
Environment ministry, tel: +44 171 890 3000; References: "Consumer Products and the Environment."

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