Published on 17 September 2019
L'affichage environnemental d’un produit permet d’informer les consommateurs sur les impacts environnementaux calculés sur l’ensemble de son cycle de vie. Shutterstock

Benoit Gabrielle, professor of bioclimatology at AgroParisTech, and Catherine Gomy, professor of environmental management and circular economy at AgroParisTech, question the effects of generalising environmental labelling to all products and services purchased by consumers.

The climatic hell towards which we seem to be heading is paved with good intentions. Current events are full of examples illustrating the difficulty of our helpless fellow citizens to tackle the problem given the contradictory proposals and injunctions made.

On the one hand, governments are failing to set common climate commitments. On the other hand, civil and economic society is multiplying initiatives and modes of action. It is not clear in which direction will be launched the movement that whole sections of civil society are calling for. From the top (governments and leaders) to the bottom (you and us), through policies encouraging the greening of the services and products we consume, or the other way around?

Whatever the choice of the decision-making process - the two approaches are not exclusive - it is necessary to know the impacts of the options available to us. Environmental labelling is an inspiring illustration. It consists in indicating to consumers the impacts of products and services on major ecological issues such as climate change, biodiversity or water resources.

A display still under construction

France pioneered this subject by launching an experiment more than 10 years ago, later extended to the European level. With the help of government services, a consortium of more than 100 companies, distributors and trade federations have put in place innovative solutions for certain product categories, both in terms of evaluation methods and communication to the general public, in order to test the feasibility of such a display.

At the end of this pilot project, they decided that environmental impact analysis methods should be secured and shared, before generalising the display. The ADEME was in charge of this work. Some professional sectors have also voluntarily committed themselves to implementing display for all their products or services, in fields as diverse as furniture, clothing and hotels. Pilot companies also tested the system on food products and electronic equipment.

The European Commission also undertook this approach in 2013. In 2018, the pilot phase of the "Environmental Footprint" programme was completed, but the development of standards and technical tools is still ongoing. A change of scale is therefore now possible, if appropriate political decisions are taken and a governance involving all stakeholders is put in place. Last March, the Economic, Social and Environmental Council issued an announcement to this effect, inviting the government to "stimulate a new dynamic on this subject and take proactive political decisions from 2019 on the occasion of the implementation of the roadmap on the circular economy".

Generalise the approach

First, environmental labelling leads to the perception that consumers will be able to change the offer in the relevant sectors by informing them about the impacts of the products and services they buy. In short, demand will drive supply. However, will the latter be able to evolve as quickly as the former, if the latter is indeed the right lever?

In other words, if all consumers wanted the same product at the same time, would production be able to cope? Consider the example of the electric car, which is one of the hot topics. The large-scale adoption of this technology (at affordable costs) could come up against the following limitations: do we have sufficient and "sustainable" raw materials to make the batteries used in these cars? Who will provide the necessary infrastructure to recharge the batteries? The dynamics triggered by environmental advertising could thus be curbed if the offer of virtuous alternatives were to be non-existent or insufficiently available.

Improve its readability

The energy label implemented on a European scale.Wikipedia, CC BY-NC-SA

Another challenge of environmental labelling is to make it readable and useful for consumers at the time of their purchase, in order to achieve significant changes in the offer, and thus an effective and sustainable change in our consumption patterns, or even in our lives. This was the case for the energy label, deployed at European level on household appliances.

With ratings ranging from "G" (for an energy-intensive appliance) to "A" (for the most efficient appliances), this label is easy to interpret. The very clear financial benefit for the consumer has enabled the offer to develop.

Environmental labelling covers a wider range of environmental issues (from biodiversity to air pollution), for which it is more difficult to understand one's individual interest. In addition, many private and collective initiatives exist to promote ecological approaches, and the public is struggling to find its way through them. If we take the simple example of the Organic Agriculture label, an official and guaranteed label, individual interpretations differ on its benefit (health, nutritional and sensory quality, production methods that respect the environment and animal welfare, etc.).

In connection with the environmental labelling approach, the new circular economy legislative project, currently under consideration, includes the implementation of a "reparability index" to encourage the extension of the products' lifespan. A working group was in charge of the construction. The purpose was to design a display for electrical and electronic equipment that would provide simple information on reparability. In particular, it should include criteria relating to assembly/disassembly procedures, availability of spare parts, and the cost of repairs.

Beyond these consumer-centred approaches, the focus is on shared uses (such as a car) rather than personal purchases. A study published by ADEME in 2016 on collaborative consumption thus showed that the practices of sharing mobility and sharing or reusing objects (household appliances, furniture, books, etc.) are those generating the environmental benefits.

Building and sharing databases

The production of robust and accessible databases is a key issue for the success of environmental labelling. The grey matter and investments currently contributing to increasing consumption could be used to address environmental issues. In particular, the digital giants are likely to play an important role because they already have comprehensive data on our lifestyles (product consumption, food, health, etc.).

Yuka is an application that gives supermarket products a rating based on health and environmental criteria, and proposes alternatives, Yuka. C BY-NC-SA

In addition, young companies such as Yuka (in the field of health through food) are implementing innovative measures to enable a change of scale in the creation of these databases. This also allows to broaden the range of information available to consumers. However, the economic models of these companies, as well as their modes of governance, still need to be clarified and strengthened over time. We believe that it is essential to ensure transparency and critical revision of the databases and processing tools by independent experts.

In the end, we believe that it is possible to accelerate the movement if we create ways of acting in partnership, for example by taking inspiration from the dynamic that led to the initial experimentation with environmental labelling in France. The resulting assessment and decision-making tools should be considered as "common goods". Armed with these, everyone will be able to make informed choices and promote their convictions in their various spheres of action and commitment - and thus work on the essential transitions that await us.

Benoit Gabrielle, Professor of Bioclimatology, Agro ParisTech – Université Paris-Saclay and Catherine Gomy, Consultant in Sustainable Development Strategy, specialized in production and responsible consumption methods - Temporary teacher, environmental management and circular economy, Agro ParisTech – Université Paris-Saclay

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read the original article in French.