Environmental Audit Committee

Environmental Audit Committee

House of Commons

26 July 2007


Environmental Labelling

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has today decided to set up a Sub-committee to inquire into the issue of environmental labelling. Environmental labels are growing rapidly in number and can be applied to a variety of goods in a number of ways, from air freight labels on food, to energy efficiency labels on white goods. The Sub-committee is concerned that, despite the positive signal of many such labels, the proliferation of labels of this kind might lead to consumer confusion, and undermine confidence in environmental labelling in general. This could lessen the environmental benefits that might otherwise be expected.

The field is most confused in the area of food produce, where consumers are faced with a wide range of labels, demonstrating (for example), organic standards, local produce, air freight, farming standards, Fairtrade, LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), and recycling instructions. Labels are also applied by a variety of different bodies, running from the producers themselves, supermarkets, national or international organisations, and through to UK or EU standards. Together with the new requirements for the display of nutritional figures, food shoppers are now encountering more symbols and more product information than ever before. Consumers will also find environmental labels on non-food products, most notably energy efficiency labels on white goods and other electrical products, but also product-specific labels such as fuel economy labels on new cars.

However, especially with regard to food, consumers are often faced with contradictory labels, or a significant difference of approach between retailers. For example, the Carbon Reduction Label launched by the Carbon Trust in March 2007 gives the carbon emissions represented by the product. However, there are already labels that represent carbon emissions - Marks and Spencer (although involved with the Carbon Trust scheme), has introduced an "air freighted" symbol, in order to help consumers tackle food miles. Waitrose has also expanded its use of environmental labelling by applying the LEAF standard to all its food, whether produced in the UK or abroad, although this will not include a food mile-related assessment. Waitrose argues that "recent research has indicated that for some crops, the net environmental impact of cultivating in warmer climates can be lower than growing in Northern Europe, because of the reduced need for heating and lighting".

The Sub-committee has several principal lines of inquiry for this topic:

₠Products requiring labelling. The Sub-committee would like to investigate which products are currently subject to environmental labelling, both compulsory and voluntary, and whether further products or sectors should be included under an environmental labelling scheme.

₠What should be shown under a labelling system. The Sub-committee would like to assess which criteria should be illustrated by an environmental label, and how overlaps between different concerns could be adequately dealt with. The Sub-committee would also be interested in investigating how environmental labels could best convey information accurately and usefully to the consumer. Given the EAC's recent focus on climate change and related issues, the Sub-committee would be particularly interested to hear about the development and merit of labels which demonstrate the carbon footprint of a product - i.e. the carbon emitted during its production, storage and transportation.

₠The case for rationalising environmental labels. The Sub-committee would like to assess whether concerns over the proliferation of environmental labels are justified, and the extent to which consumers are able to cope and engage with the many different labels on the market. The Sub-committee would also like to investigate whether there is a case for rationalising the system of environmental labelling, or for calling for certain labels to be given priority when displayed on products.

₠The impact of environmental labelling on consumer behaviour. The Sub-committee would be interested in assessing how easily consumers understand environmental labels, and whether environmental labelling has a significant impact on human behaviour; not only whether it can reinforce and assist existing positive environmental behaviour, but also whether it can cause behavioural change.

₠The regulation of environmental labelling. The Sub-committee would like to examine the ways in which environmental labels are calculated, assessed and awarded, and would also like to investigate the current regulation to which these labels are subjected. The Sub-committee would welcome assessments of whether current levels of regulation are adequate, or whether further regulation, be it wider in scope or stricter in demand, is required.

₠Exports from developing countries. The Sub-committee would also like to investigate the impact of environmental labelling on exports from developing countries, and in particular whether labelling of this kind could have a detrimental impact on the trade opportunities available to these countries.

₠International labelling. Finally, the Sub-committee would be interested in assessing the feasibility of an international environmental labelling system, and the extent to which this would be compatible with the rules on trade set out by the WTO.

The Sub-committee invites organisations and members of the public to submit memoranda setting out their views, both on those points listed above and on other relevant areas of interest.

Written evidence should be sent to the Committee in Word format by Friday 5 October 2007, by e-mail to eacom@parliament.uk A brief guidance note on the preparation and submission of evidence is available on the Committee's web pages. Following the submission of evidence, the Committee intend to take oral evidence from a limited number of organisations in October and November, and subsequently to publish a report. For further information on this inquiry, please telephone 020-7219-0715.

Notes for Editors

1. Details of all the Committee's press releases and inquiries, together with its Reports, oral evidence and other publications, are available on the Committee's Internet home page, which can be found at: www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/environmental_audit_committee.cfm.

2. Waitrose presented its arguments about environmental impacts in its press release of 26/04/07 http://www.johnlewispartnership.co.uk/Display.aspx?MasterId=fd2c22b2-76eb-4678-b725-30cb587fe6bc&NavigationId=549