HC Deb 12 March 1991 vol 187 cc915-22

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Knight.]

11 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

First, I thank Mr. Speaker for selecting the issue of green labelling for this Adjournment debate.

It is the responsibility of the human race to hand on our planet in good heart for future generations. That means that each of us must behave responsibly and seek to ensure that in our daily lives we do as little damage as possible to our present and future environment. I know that millions of people in Britain share that view; I am pleased that a growing number of my constituents not only share it but act on it.

Over recent years it has become clear that more and more people are seeking, where there is a choice, to buy products which are environmentally friendly. Since 1989, more and more manufacturers have tried to meet the demand for such products. Environmentally friendly products were at one time available in only a few specialist shops, but they have now moved into the supermarkets and corner shops of most of our towns.

Some manufacturers and supermarket chains have sought to produce environmentally friendly products fairly. Others have shown more interest in quick profits and protecting their share of the market than in environmental honesty. Anyone who does the shopping will see a mass of green products. On close inspection, some of the products are anything but green. It would be wrong to attribute to them the term "green" as we use it now. The most that we can do is to use the term "green" as people used to use it—to mean naive. Some "green" products are little more than con tricks.

The January edition of Which? set out some of the problems. It talked about exclusive claims, multiple claims, confusing claims, meaningless claims and unrealistic claims. For example, many labels say "environmentally friendly" or "ozone friendly" without giving any explanation of what the product does. One would almost think that the package smiled at the environment or the ozone layer. But in some cases, the product does nothing at all to help the environment.

Other products claim that they do not contain any ammonia or any phosphates. To the uninitiated, that sounds impressive, but when one checks up one finds that the alternative products which do exactly the same do not contain any ammonia or phosphates either. The product line may never have contained those ingredients, so the claims are spurious.

Then there are claims that products can be recycled. I am all for recycling of products, but it is somewhat disingenuous of certain plastics manufacturers to claim that their product can be recycled when they know perfectly well that in many parts of the country there are no facilities for collecting those plastics or recycling them.

There there is the question of aerosols. An increasing number of aerosol manufacturers claim that their products are environmentally friendly and do not contain any chlorofluorocarbons. No aerosol is really environmentally friendly, however, and almost all aerosol products can be replaced with a non-atomising spray which will do exactly the same thing. It may be convenient to spray furniture with a polish, but there is little difference in the end result if one uses a tin of polish and rubs on the polish. There are perfectly adequate alternatives to most of the deodorants and other products that come in aerosols, and these do not do any harm to the environment. Firm consideration should be given to not using aerosols.

There has been a great deal of criticism recently of toilet roll manufacturers who have jumped on to the environmental bandwagon and claimed that they use recycled paper. That was true, but they were using recycled high-quality papar when there was a great deal of waste paper available as a result of newspaper collections. It is desirable that that paper should be collected and that it should find its way into toilet rolls. Toilet roll manufacturers who use low-grade waste pulp in their toilet rolls should be given credit for that. I am worried that there are still products on the shelves that claim to contain recycled paper. If it is high-quality recycled paper, there is no merit in the claims.

Some manufacturers claim that their carrier bags are biodegradable. That means that some extra material is put into the bag which will later rot away, allowing the plastic to break down into small particles. I am not certain that that is a good use of resources. The alternative approach of making carrier bags that can be used for several journeys to the shops is a much better one. I could give many other examples, but I must be mindful of the time.

It is unfortunate that some shoppers have become disillusioned as a result of the problems they face. Others want to do their shopping quickly and feel that they do not have the time to study carefully all the competing claims made on behalf of the products on the shelves so as to separate the genuine from the false.

The Government, the Labour party and many pressure groups such as the Consumers Association and Friends of the Earth have all recognised that there is a problem. It is more than 18 months since the Government first consulted on the idea of introducing a Government-approved scheme of green labelling. The Germans had such a scheme as long ago as 1978. In January 1990, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Patten) announced Government approval for a scheme. He said: There is overwhelming support for an official ecolabelling scheme operating on a European Community-wide basis which is simple, flexible, transparent and commends public respect. He added: We intend to work closely with the European Commission and our European partners to maintain the momentum for this initiative."—[Official Report, 9 January 1990; Vol. 164, c. 589.] I am not sure how the Government define momentum, but I am not happy that, more than 12 months later, we still do not have a system in place. Perhaps the Government's definition of momentum is a little less vigorous than I would like it to be.

In the past 12 months, the European Community has produced a document on green labelling which contains a number of proposals. It is not especially specific. It seems that the EC will not agree to a specific proposal until October at the earliest, and possibly later than that. It could be another year, or even two years, before the member states get around to introducing the labels and getting the operation going. That is unsatisfactory when Germany already has a system in operation and so have Japan and Canada. Many other countries are far closer than we are to having green labels or a similar system in operation.

My aim in the debate is to try to inject some urgency into the matter and tell the Government that we want green labels now. Otherwise, more and more people will become disillusioned and confused, and all the good will towards environmental labelling and environmentally friendly products will be dissipated. Already, opinion polls show that there is a growing cynicism among the public and a drop in the number of people purchasing environmentally friendly products and showing a preference for green products.

I ask the Minister for a clear timetable for action and specific additional measures. I want the green labels quickly, but I also urge the Government, when they introduce the system, to consider a grading, starring or numbering system to show which products are extremely good, which are moderately good and which, while helpful, are not so good. That would help the public to compare the environmental effects of products, how they work, and their prices.

The Government should also take up the question of trade description legislation. One of the most worrying things is that trading standards officers cannot bring prosecutions for misleading claims about environmental labels. It is important that the Government bring forward proposals in legislation to make enforcement of descriptions possible.

It is also important that the label not only deals with the use and disposal of the product but also takes into account its manufacture. That would enable us to consider not just the impact of the product on its user and on the environment during and after use, but the nasty by-products of the manufacturing process.

We must be concerned especially about the way in which bleaches are used. There is often unnecessary bleaching of materials. The Government should include in any green labelling scheme the whole process from the conception of the product right through to its use and disposal.

I also stress that any scheme has to cover a wide range of products, including food packaging. It must address specific environmental issues such as the destruction of the rain forests, the depletion of the ozone layer, other aspects of global warming and the whole question of the efficient use of energy. All those issues have to be taken into account in developing a green labelling scheme.

No doubt the Minister will claim that there are difficulties and problems in putting forward such a scheme within the EC. I recognise that there are problems about getting uniformity across the EC. One difficulty is the different approach to containers for liquids. Several European countries—France and Denmark are examples —have a much better system than we have. They insist that liquid containers be reusable rather than recyclable. I would look for green labels commending the return of bottles, in whatever form, for various uses, rather than a container which could be recycled. The preference of our manufacturers and supermarkets is for the one-trip container which can be recycled. It may be a glass container which can be smashed to be made into new bottles, or an aluminium or tin can which can be recycled, or even a plastic container.

I recognise that there are differences of approach among member states of the European Community, but that does not excuse Government inaction. I am convinced that, as soon as one product receives the Government's official seal of approval—the first genuine green label—and as soon as misleading advertisements are banned, green labels will become extremely popular and will serve to promote green products and protect our environment.

When doing my family shopping I do not want to have to spend ages trying to read the small print on products to find out whether they are genuinely environmentally friendly, and dredging up my schoolboy science to work out whether a particular product is a safe and sensible buy. I want to be able to do my shopping quickly and take into account quality and price, but I also want to have firmly on the shelves products whose labels tell me that they are environmentally friendly and will not cause unnecessary destruction. Please, Minister, may we have a timetable for action, and can we start to take action now?

11.15 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on securing this debate and on raising this important subject. I congratulate him, too, on his clear summary of the relevant issues. I am sure that he will be glad to know that, in the case of many of the bull points, he is pushing at an open door.

We live in an age when environmental issues affect every aspect of our lives. It is not now enough simply to ask what the Government can do for the environment. We need to find ways in which each and every one of us can do our part to protect the world in which we live. Happily, many people have woken up to that fact and want to play their part. They have realised that one way in which they can do so is by taking environmental considerations into account when making their everyday purchases.

The 1980s saw the growth of an important new force —green consumerism. As the public became more aware of environmental issues, they also showed a desire to buy goods produced by environmentally responsible manufac-turers. Retailers responded in turn by highlighting environmental issues and by demanding environmentally friendly goods from their suppliers. People have begun to appreciate that the decisions that they make as individuals can collectively go some way towards alleviating environmental problems. As the hon. Gentleman said, over its life cycle, any product will inevitably have an impact on the environment. It will consume energy, use raw materials and have to be disposed of, but it is possible to identify those products that are less damaging to the environment than others.

The speed with which consumers moved away from purchasing aerosols that contained chlorofluorocarbons and other ozone-depleting substances is an excellent example of green consumerism, but there are others—the moves to lead-free petrol and to batteries without dangerous substances, such as mercury, and the increased demand for products made from recycled materials.

The consumer market for these goods is enormous. However, it is not always easy for consumers to discover and to know which are the less damaging products that they want to buy. Manufacturers have responded to the growth in environmental concern by making a bewildering assortment of claims about the environmental credentials of their products. Some of them are justified; some clearly are not. We are disturbed at reports of manufacturers who are making misleading or frankly irrelevant claims. Claims that are factually inaccurate can always be dealt with under the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, which we intend to amend—when parliamentary time allows—to put it beyond any doubt that it covers environmental claims. However, consumers need positive and clear guidance on which claims they can trust.

We believe that an official scheme awarding labels to products on environmental grounds will provide con-sumers with such guidance and force manufacturers to consider the environmental effects of their products. It would be a system of positive labelling, showing which products had been scientifically assessed and found to do less damage to the environment than others of their kind. It must be easily understandable, so that it leads consumers through the maze of manufacturers' claims and therefore helps them to help the environment.

The Government have made clear their intention to introduce an official eco-labelling scheme as soon as possible, which will provide impartial and authoritative guidance on which products are enviromentally less damaging than others. Consumers have said that they want such a scheme, retailers have said that it will be helpful and manufacturers realise that it could provide valuable marketing opportunities.

An eco-labelling scheme must contain some fundamen-tal principles if it is to meet the objectives of protecting the environment, informing consumers and encouraging the development of environmentally less damaging products. First, we believe that it must take into account the impact of products on the environment over the whole of their life cycle—from the cradle to the grave. It is not enough to consider a single factor such as whether there are CFCs in an aerosol or phosphates in a washing powder, as that could ignore the many possible serious impacts of a product. A cradle-to-grave analysis would evaluate the impact of a product throughout its production, use and disposal.

An enormous range of factors, which will necessarily vary between product groups, need to be considered, but areas for examination will include the use made of raw materials and whether they were recycled or non-renewable, energy use in production, pollution emissions during the production process, the packaging of the product, its distribution network, energy efficiency of the product in use, how it is disposed of and whether all or sections of it are recyclable.

Such information would be used to establish criteria for the product group, against which the performance of individual goods would be assessed for the aware of a label. Only such cradle-to-grave analysis can give a realistic picture of the environmental friendliness of a product.

We believe that such a scheme should be voluntary. It would simply provide information, but it would be in manufacturers' interests to apply for a label for their products, as all the available evidence suggests that, when given relevant information, consumers will choose goods that are shown to be less harmful to the environment.

If the eco-labelling scheme is to achieve genuine environmental improvements, it is essential that it is based on high standards. We are convinced that an eco-label should be awarded only to products that are towards the top end of what technology permits. We would also expect continual raising of standards and would look to revise criteria regularly to keep them in line with the state of technology.

For an eco-labelling scheme to be credible, it must be clear and easily intelligible to manufacturers and the general public. Information about why a product has been awarded a label must be readily available, and manufacturers must know the criteria against which their products will be evaluated. Consumers and manufacturers must be involved at every stage of the labelling process. There must be a mechanism to allow them to feed in suggestions for possible product categories, and they should be involved in the consultation process for the development of criteria. If industry and consumers do not believe in or understand the scheme, it will not work. For clarity to consumers, a single label is preferable to a grading system.

We do not believe that food, drink or pharmaceutical goods should be covered, as they are covered by other labelling schemes, but beyond that there is no limit to the goods that could be covered. Priority should be given to labelling products that have, relatively, the greatest environmental impact.

Mr. Bennett

I understand the argument for not including food, but will the Minister take into account food containers and packaging?

Mr. Baldry

As I have said, except for food, drink or pharmaceutical goods, there is no limit to the goods that could be covered. Concern has been expressed about the environmental impact of packaging, which is one of the reasons why we are discussing with manufacturers, retailers and others how we minimise the use of packaging.

The Government are convinced that their association with the scheme will enhance its prospects of success. It is essential that the scheme should be viewed as impartial and authoritative—and therefore clear Government involvement should improve the credibility of the scheme for manufacturers and consumers. The consultation exercise that we conducted in 1989 on eco-labelling schemes demonstrated overwhelming support for a Government-sponsored scheme. Once the scheme is up and running, I believe that the Government should take a step back to ensure that they do not influence the decisions of the responsible organisation in any way.

Introduction of an eco-labelling scheme should be an important incentive for manufacturers to develop "clean" technology. As the hon. Gentleman said, it is now more than a year since the then Secretary of State for the Environment announced our intention to introduce an official eco-labelling scheme. Since then, a good deal of progress has been made in determining how a scheme should be set up and how it could most effectively be operated. We decided that it would be sensible to involve various groups in the actual development of the scheme. The National Advisory Group on Eco-Labelling, known as NAGEL, was established last May to allow just this, and to provide the Government with valuable advice from people with an interest in, or experience of, the issue of eco-labelling. We have been fortunate to have had the help of this group, whose members are drawn from wide-ranging backgrounds.

In the environment White Paper "This Common Inheritance", the Government said that they would press the European Commission to produce a proposal for a Communitywide environmental labelling scheme at the earliest possible opportunity. We still believe that that would be the best way forward. A European scheme would facilitate trade and prevent labels of individual national schemes proving an impediment to the development of the single market. We firmly believe that the establishment of a plethora of schemes within Europe would be confusing to the consumer and would hinder the development of the single market. A common European scheme must therefore be our aim. We have continued to press the European Commission to publish its proposals for such a scheme. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside wrote to Commissioner Ripa di Meana in January, making that point clear.

I am glad to report to the House that the Commission has now made a proposal for a regulation to establish an eco-labelling scheme, and discussions on the detail are under way. The proposed regulation will be on the agenda at the Environment Council next week. We are continuing to push for quick agreement on a proposal and will make this point forcibly at the Environment Council. Consumers want information on environmental questions — and they want it now. We would like to be in a position where the first labels could be awarded by the end of this year or early in 1992, and have told the Commission that, if agreement on the scheme is held up unduly, we will need to look seriously at the possibility of going ahead with a United Kingdom-only scheme.

However, the Commission has at last issued a proposal, and I am optimistic about the chances of reaching agreement on it quickly. All 12 member states have indicated general support for the idea of a Communitywide eco-labelling scheme and are agreed on the basic principles on which such a scheme should operate.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does the Minister accept that the Commission's proposals are rather general and wide in outline, and that we need to get some flesh on the bones quickly?

Mr. Baldry

I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Commission's proposals accord with our view of what the basic principles of an eco-labelling scheme should be. It proposes a voluntary scheme, with criteria based on cradle-to-grave analyses and labels awarded only to products achieving high environmental standards. However, the Commission is proposing a much more centralised and complex structure for administering the scheme than we feel able to support. It suggests that much of the work on the development of product criteria should be carried out centrally, as should decisions on the award of labels to individual products. Those advising us from industry tell us that industry will not support such a scheme because it will not perceive advantages to itself in going through a time-consuming and expensive applica-tion process.

The Commission also proposes that a jury, consisting of representatives from each of the member states and of other interested parties, such as industry and environmen-tal and consumer groups, should assess which products best meet the criteria for a label.

There is thus much to discuss, but the fact that the Commission has at last come forward with its proposals, that they are now on the agenda of the Environment Council, that there is something to discuss and a broad consensus about the best way forward is all good news. Other member states clearly share our reservations about the complex nature of the structure that the Commission has proposed and about the use of a European environmental agency in determining the criteria for the award of labels. I am confident that we should now be able to work out a scheme on which we can all agree.

The Government are therefore fully committed to introducing an official eco-labelling scheme as soon as possible. As I hope I have shown, we are working hard to get such a scheme in place as soon as possible. We have pressed the Commission to make good progress on the issue, and continue to do so. The position will become much clearer over the next month or two as negotiations on the proposed European regulation progress, but I am still optimistic that we will get a European scheme in place before too long, and that we shall have an eco-labelling scheme which is credible and which manufacturers, retailers and consumers will wish to support.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Eleven o'clock.