As defined by consultants Ernst & Young and the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU), IPP addresses all environmental impacts across entire product life cycles, therefore avoiding shifting environmental problems from one medium to another or from one stage of the product cycle to another.
The growth of interest in IPP marks an important new stage in the evolution of environmental policies, which have already become much more diverse and sophisticated since the EU's first serious attempts to reconcile economic development and the environment in the 1960s.
Early environmental policies overwhelmingly focused on industry smokestacks and discharge pipes and sought to solve environmental problems through "command and control" regulations. Successive waves of environmental policies since have broadened the scope of what environmental impacts are addressed and the tools used to influence them.
Some product-related environmental policies have already appeared in EU environmental policies, though without the backing of a clear IPP concept. Examples include the EU's ecolabelling scheme, introduced in 1992 as a way to harness market pressure to encourage manufacturers to produce greener products. The 1994 directive on packaging and packaging waste introduced the concept of "producer responsibility" to EU legislation, requiring manufacturers to get involved in managing their products once they had become waste.
More recent EU proposals on the management of scrap cars (the end-of-life vehicles directive) and waste electrical and electronic equipment extend the use of producer responsibility. Other product policies introduced by the EU are mandatory energy labelling of household electrical appliances, and, more recently, of cars.
It is in the EU's traditionally most environmentally progressive member states, however, that IPP has been most integrated into environmental policies. Both the Netherlands and Denmark have developed comprehensive policies on products and the environment; Sweden, Finland and Austria are moving in the same direction.
The implications of IPP for policy makers, industry and society remain unclear, but five building blocks were identified by Ernst & Young and SPRU: greater use of producer responsibility; more systematic management of waste streams; promotion of green product innovation through ecodesign; creation of markets for green products, and greater dissemination of environmental information.
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