INSIGHT: Congress to consider eco-label mandate

16 October 2008 15:45  [Source: ICIS news]

By Joe Kamalick


A sample UK green label showing carbon footprint estimateWASHINGTON (ICIS news)--The US Congress may soon take first steps toward establishing a federal requirement for so-called “green” or eco-labels on consumer goods - a move that could pose major challenges and opportunities for chemicals.


Senator Dianne Feinstein (Democrat-California), a major proponent of global warming legislative remedies and chairwoman of the Senate Rules and Administration Committee, is circulating a draft bill that would put in motion what eventually could become a de facto federal mandate for eco-labeling.


Feinstein’s office staff confirmed that the senator is working on an eco-labels bill and has distributed draft language to other Senate offices, but they have declined to release a copy on grounds it is a work in progress.


However, a leaked copy of the draft measure indicates that it would give the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) authority to establish and operate a voluntary programme to award environmental impact approvals to consumer products.


EPA would be charged with establishing accurate, science-based criteria for green labels. According to the draft copy, the bill would provide for a 13-member decision-making board, chaired by an EPA official and with members from manufacturing, environmental, consumer, scientific and labour groups.


That board would in turn grant authority to “product certification centres” that would establish eco-label criteria for specific product categories and award green label status to particular items on the basis of their “potential to reduce negative environmental impacts”.


The product certification centres would be third-party entities or consortia that have “the knowledge and capability needed to distribute the eco-label”.


Products eligible for the eco-label would be those that present “a significant potential to effect environmental improvements through consumer choice”.


Products that would not be eligible for an eco-label include “any substance or preparation that the Board determines to be very toxic, toxic, dangerous to the environment, carcinogenic, toxic with respect to reproduction or mutagenic”.


In addition, products would not be eligible for an eco-label from EPA if they are manufactured by a process determined by the board to be “likely to significantly harm human health or the environment”.


Also ineligible for an eco-label would be any product that “in the normal application of the goods, could be harmful to a consumer”.


Because the manufacturing process used to generate a product would be considered (in addition to the product itself) as part of an eco-label application, the draft bill provides that “product certification centres shall audit all production facilities to ensure that the requirements are met by each facility at which the eligible product is manufactured”.


Manufacturers seeking an eco-label award would pay an application fee, and those companies that win an eco-label designation would pay an additional annual fee to EPA for the privilege. Both fees would be set by the agency at a level sufficient to cover operating costs for EPA and the certification centres.


Whether Feinstein’s bill will pass in the next Congress remains to be seen, but according to a leading chemical industry leader, an eco-label system in the US is inevitable.


“There’s no doubt that green labelling will happen,” said Joe Acker, president of the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA).


In early 2007 Acker had predicted that green labelling was coming, although he thought it would take 10 or 20 years for an effective and objective system to be worked out.


“It appears that it might come sooner than that,” Acker said.


“The trouble is that the definitions and in some cases even the science necessary to make these sorts of distinctions among products are not in place,” he said.


Acker had not seen the draft Feinstein bill but said that any approach would “need pretty solid objective criteria, and a subjective decision process by EPA would be fraught with problems and probably lawsuits”


“There’s a whole host of things to be hammered out and discussed. This would not be a simple thing like the measure of fat and calories” done for food nutrition labels, he said.


“Are permanent-press trousers less ecologically worthy than regular pants because of the chemical additives used to make them wrinkle-free?” he asked. “If so, how do you determine that and who makes that determination, and what kind of testing would be used to determine the relative ‘green-ness’ of a product?”


Coming to agreement on the millions of items in consumer commerce would be a huge undertaking, Acker noted. “Which is why I thought it would take considerably longer to get there, maybe 20 years,” he said.


Because of the tremendous complexities involved, Acker does not think the Feinstein bill is likely to pass Congress in 2009.  “There is too much unknown for it to pass quickly, even if it were to be a voluntary programme,” he said.


“But I have no doubt that this will happen.”


($1 = €0.73)


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By: Joe Kamalick
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