Walmart eco-label initiative seen as preferable to US mandate

24 July 2009 20:54  [Source: ICIS news]

WASHINGTON (ICIS news)--Walmart’s eco-label plan may face technical and scientific challenges and take years to implement, but chemical industry leaders said Friday the private sector initiative is better than a government mandate.

Joe Acker, president of the Society of Chemical Manufacturers and Affiliates (SOCMA), said the sustainability product index initiative announced by Walmart on 16 July gives the private sector an opportunity to set criteria for an eco-label before government.

“I think this is a good thing, a start,” Acker said of the Walmart initiative. “This is inevitable, it was going to happen anyway, and I think this is a better approach than having Congress do it,” he said.

The sustainability product index, or eco-label plan, announced by Walmart will aim at providing a measure of energy costs, emissions, material efficiency, raw material sourcing and social compliance for each consumer product the retailer sells.

The retail leader said it will develop the index in three phases, starting with a 15-question survey of its more than 100,000 suppliers. The plan would also utilise academics, suppliers, interest groups and governments to build a global database for life-cycle analysis of individual products.

It is that task that may well take years, according to Acker.

“The problem with eco-labelling is that without exacting scientific standards for that analysis, you can’t be sure of the results, and consumers will have to have confidence that what they’re reading [on an eco-label] is actually true,” Acker said. "It can’t be just some arbitrary decision by someone.”

“Take corn flakes, for example,” he said.  “How far back in the supply chain do you go to establish the sustainability index for corn flakes?  Do you just get Kellogg’s production data, or do you go further, back to the farm?” 

The Kellogg Company is a major US producer of breakfast cereals and other foods.

“I think it is inevitable that this is going to happen,” Acker said.  “But there are a lot of issues that have to be resolved before you can slap a label on a product and say this is rated ‘five’ on the sustainability index.”

Acker, who has anticipated eco-labelling for years, believes that the movement will create winners and losers among product manufacturers, although who those might be is too early to say, he said.

In addition, he thinks that a government role in eco-labelling is equally inevitable.

“This will likely end up like a lot of other things,” he said, “with the private sector taking it to a point of codification, and then Congress stepping in to legislate the matter.”

Congressional action might come even sooner. Senator Diane Feinstein’s office said on Friday that she is still in discussions with retailers, manufacturers, distributors and advocates about what shape an eco-label bill might take.

Feinstein, a Democrat representing California, circulated a draft bill late last year that would have established a federal voluntary programme within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for eco-label standards and authorisations.

That bill was not introduced and still remains a work in progress, Feinstein’s spokeswoman said.

“But she is still very interested in this, and she thinks consumers have a right to make informed product choices and to know the environmental impact of those products,” the spokeswoman said.

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By: Joe Kamalick
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