HC Deb 09 November 1992 vol 213 cc717-24

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

10 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of ecolabelling, or green labels, as they are often called. I am pleased to see that the Minister of State is to reply to the debate, although I have to remind him that the last time we debated environmental issues he said that his wife did not trust him to do the shopping.

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Maclean)

And she still does not.

Mr. Bennett

I hope that, by the time the Minister has learnt a little more about ecolabelling, he will be trusted to do the shopping.

It has always been important to me that we should try to leave our planet in good heart for future generations. That sentiment is shared by a large number of people in this country. I accept that any demand on resources for the purchases we make diminishes the resources available to the planet. However, one can make choices in the resources that we use. Some are more environmentally friendly than others.

That view is shared by a substantial number of people in the United Kingdom. Figures suggest that about 30 per cent. of the population would, if given the choice, prefer to buy something that is environmentally friendly rather than a product that is less environmentally friendly. Sadly, the number of people who make environmentally friendly choices has waned, the reason being that people believe that they have been conned—that various manufacturers jumped on to the green bandwagon, claiming that their products were environmentally friendly, and people then found out, after discussion, debate and articles in the press, that some of those products were nothing like so environmentally friendly as had been claimed. They were not green in the environmental sense; it was just that manufacturers hoped that people would be "green" enough or naive enough to buy those products.

We need a Government-inspired scheme. I have raised the issue on several occasions in the House, including an Adjournment debate. I urged the Government to introduce their own scheme, but their answer was that they preferred to go along with the European Community scheme. I understand the argument: that, if we can encourage people throughout the European Community to buy environmentally friendly products, the environment will gain far more than it would if it happened only in the United Kingdom. I fear, however, that it is taking a long time to get a European Community scheme off the ground.

I am very pleased that a United Kingdom Ecolabelling Board has been set up, but I am disappointed that it is to look first into white goods—for example, washing machines. It is important that people should be provided with the opportunity to buy environmentally friendly washing machines, but I suspect that that will not provide people with as much choice as they would like. The difference of only a few pence between the price of one soap powder and another, one of which is environmentally friendly and the other not, makes it fairly easy for people to decide to choose the environmentally friendly one, because the price difference is not all that great. However, washing machines on the market at the moment which claim to be environmentally friendly are considerably more expensive than others. That makes it much harder for people to make the right choice.

I hope that the Minister will address one or two of the problems in choosing a washing machine. For instance, a machine that is environmentally friendly in one part of the EC, let alone in one part of the United Kingdom, may not necessarily be environmentally friendly in another. One of the criteria is the volume of water that is used. In parts of the EC where water is in short supply, the most important criterion will be that the programme uses little water, and perhaps uses it several times in the process. In the lake district or other parts of Britain where water is more freely available, low water consumption may not be as important.

Another important criterion may be the amount of heat that is used to dry washing. In parts of the EC where temperatures are high, it may be far better to use natural heat from the sun rather than a drying machine. I should be interested to hear from the Minister, therefore, what progress is being made in the one area where Britain is supposed to be giving the lead—washing machines.

I am disappointed that the scheme is not up and running. I know that much of the ground work has been done, but the first question that I put to the Minister is, how soon will it be possible for me to see in shops products displaying the United Kingdom ecolabel and to know that they are environmentally friendly?

How soon will there be a list of environmentally friendly products? I notice from the literature that the Ecolabelling Board has issued that Denmark is supposed to be dealing with kitchen towels, toilet tissues, photocopiers and writing paper, Germany with laundry and detergents, France with paints and varnishes and the United Kingdom with washing machines and dishwashing machines, light bulbs, soil improvers and hair sprays. Denmark will also deal with tee-shirts and bed linen, and France with batteries. I welcome that, but I hope that the Minister will tell us that, by next Easter, we shall be able to buy an environmentally friendly product that has the EC seal of approval.

I was told that the scheme is progressing slowly because it is an EC-wide scheme. Five countries, including the United Kingdom, have been preparing the list. What are Greece, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Ireland and Luxembourg, which perhaps does not have the necessary resources, supposed to be dealing with? If it is to be an EC-wide scheme, all member states should have been involved in preparing the list of products and specifications.

What is the Minister doing to try to persuade his ministerial colleagues to amend the trades description legislation? It would be nice to find a product displaying the ecolabel symbol and to know that it was environmentally friendly, but at present one can find all sorts of signs and symbols on products, some of which make very vague claims about being environmentally friendly, without any scientific backing.

I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us very firmly that, by the time these labels are in force, it will be an offence for people to make environmental claims unless they can be backed up by scientific evidence. I hope that that can be done quickly.

I am a little concerned about the policy of some of the big supermarkets. In preparing for the debate, I asked my researcher to get me some information on Sainsbury, which was keen to produce a pack showing what an environmentally concerned company it is. My research of walking around my local store doing the family shopping shows that the policy appears to have more to do with the speed at which products can be sold and with profit margins than with whether products are environmentally friendly. I do not make the accusation against Sainsbury's alone; I am sure that it is true of most of the supermarkets. If the system is to be encouraged, we depend on the stores quickly to have a range of ecolabelled products to which they can give prominence.

I notice on the list that Italy will consider packaging, which is an important question. I have often held forth in the House about what I see as the over-packaging of certain products. If we have ecolabelling for packaging, how do we decide whether an ecolabel should be put on to the packet to say that the minimum packaging has been used? Will the label be put on only when the package has been used to wrap contents that are environmentally friendly? If not, it could be misleading.

If the principle in ecolabelling is that the product should be environmentally friendly from the cradle—the manufacture of the product—to the grave—its demise—we should consider one or two products that in themselves do not appear to be anything other than wholly environmentally friendly.

The Daily Telegraph today makes some comments about all-the-year-round strawberries and says that they are tasteless. That is not the important point about them. The important point, according to that article and others, is the use of methyl bromide to sterilise the soil or the product. That chemical is used increasingly in the import of vegetables and fruit. There are considerable environmental questions and questions about development when we bring in fruit and vegetables from parts of Africa, and sometimes from countries where there is a food shortage, to be sold in British shops.

I understand that it is nice to have a range of vegetables and fruit, and to be able to please one's family or friends by offering them an exotic choice. However, in environmental terms, we should consider the cost of transport, which may be considerable. In addition, if substances that damage the ozone layer are used in growing such fruit and vegetables, some people may stop and ask themselves whether they really want to buy out-of-season strawberries, for example, as an exotic fruit because environmental damage may have been done in the production process.

The durability of products is also a factor in ecolabelling. The United Kingdom has gone a long way in considering washing machines. To what extent is the potential life of the machine considered? If a machine is easy to repair, on the whole it will be a more environmentally friendly product. However, over the years I have come across several products that are perfectly all right as long as one can get a replacement for a relatively minor part. Sometimes the production of a particular model finished long ago, so tracking down the individual part is difficult. In awarding ecolabels for washing machines, to what extent can the Ecolabelling Board be confident that, in 15 years' time, the machine will work efficiently and that spare parts can be obtained?

Another consideration is buying furniture made from hard wood. I can understand why we should not buy furniture made from wood from tropical rain forests. However, to buy an oak table which may last 300 years may be rather more environmentally friendly that to buy a table made of chipboard which will have to be replaced in six months' time. That is a difficult issue, and I should like the Minister to make some comments.

My reason for raising the subject is to try to get a progress report from the Minister. I hope that he can tell me how quickly there will be products in the shops with ecolabels and how quickly there will be a comprehensive list of such products. I hope that he can tell us what efforts are being taken to persuade other EC members, who do not seem to be taking the matter seriously at the moment, to produce specifications so that we can have a bigger list of such products. I should also like the Minister to comment about the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 and about packaging. I hope that he will also be able to deal with one or two of my more general issues.

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say. I very much hope that we will have an effective system up and running very quickly. The time for debate and argument is over. The system is long overdue.

10.15 pm
The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Maclean)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) on securing this important Adjournment debate. He has taken a keen interest in the development of an ecolabelling scheme, and has raised the subject on many occasions.

I want to correct a comment that he made at the beginning of his speech in respect of the last occasion when the subject was raised during parliamentary questions. In reply to the hon. Gentleman, I did not say that I did not know what washing-up liquid my wife uses, because I do know. I was merely trying to explain that I would not presume to tell her which washing-up liquid to buy. No doubt hon. Members who are married would never dream of making such major decisions on household policy. I will stick to minor ones on Government policy.

I welcome this opportunity to report progress with the development of the scheme. There are essentially two ways for a Government to tackle environmental problems—through coercion or encouragement. Often it is appropriate, or indeed necessary, to set statutory standards, to limit or ban certain substances or processes or to require particular action to be taken. However, there are also many occasions when more can be achieved by voluntary co-operation. Ecolabelling offers us such an opportunity to go beyond confrontation and achieve significant environmental gains by encouragement—the organic carrot rather than the stick.

The 1980s saw increasing public awareness of environmental issues. "Pollution", "acid rain", "ozone depletion" and "global warming" became household terms. People began to ask themselves what they could do to help the environment, and we saw the growth of green consumerism. There were notable successes, two of the most obvious examples of which were the removal of CFCs from aerosols and the growth of the use of lead-free petrol. However, more needs to be done.

As so often happens, there has been some disillusionment, as the hon. Gentleman said. People have come to doubt whether some greener products work as well as conventional products, and there have also been question marks over the independence and veracity of some manufacturers' green claims. Nevertheless, market research shows that consumers are still concerned about the environment. A recent survey showed that about 42 per cent. of people have changed their habits or bought certain goods out of concern for the environment.

That is where ecolabelling has a role to play. It is an authoritative scheme, which is independent of manufacturers. It can identify products that are less harmful to the environment than others and so encourage the design, manufacture, marketing, and, of prime importance, the use of such products.

The EC regulation setting up the ecolabelling scheme prohibits any false or misleading advertising of the ecolabel or the use of any label or logo that leads to confusion with the ecolabel, and the hon. Gentleman produced an example of the EC logo for the ecolabel.

More generally, the Government have made it clear that we will legislate, when the opportunity arises, to amend the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 to make clear that it covers green claims and to deal with claims that products "contain no X, Y or Z". The hon. Gentleman pressed me on that point. In the meantime, it is encouraging that the advertising industry, in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Industry, has published clear and positive guidelines on how far advertisers can go in making environmental claims.

We gave considerable thought to how best to set up an ecolabelling scheme. We could simply have set up a United Kingdom scheme. We thought about it deeply. However, in a little more than seven weeks, we shall enter the single European market. Could a plethora of national schemes offer as much to the consumer, industry and the environment as a single Communitywide scheme?

We were guided in particular by the views of the Environment Select Committee of this House. It examined the options in the last Parliament, and strongly urged the Government to co-operate with the development of a European Community ecolabelling scheme. The United Kingdom decided, therefore, to take an active role in the development of a European Community ecolabelling scheme and pressed hard for early agreement of the regulation to set up the scheme. I am pleased to say that that agreement was reached last December, and regulation 880/92 was formally adopted in March this year.

The EC ecolabelling scheme covers all consumer products except food, drink and pharmaceuticals. Food is not included, but there is a separate EC directive on organic food. So those who are worried about the use of methyl bromide should be reassured by that directive. In Copenhagen in a few weeks, the United Kingdom will press for restraints in the use of methyl bromide as a fumigant or pesticide.

The ecolabelling scheme is based on the principles of life cycle analysis. The scheme will work on a simple pass or fail basis—a manufacturer must show that the product meets all the criteria, or an ecolabel simply will not be awarded.

The ecological criteria for a product group are agreed at European level following a detailed study of the environmental impacts of the product group from cradle to grave—that is, from the sourcing of raw materials, through the manufacture, distribution chain, packaging and use, right through to the ultimate disposal of the product. The aim is to develop criteria which will minimise the key environmental impacts, without increasing other impacts or compromising either safety or performance—the product still has to do what it is supposed to do.

The criteria will be pitched at a high environmental level. However, ecolabelling is a relative scheme—it is not intended to say that products are environmentally friendly but rather to provide information and guide consumers to less harmful products. For the scheme to be successful, therefore, it is important that there are products which can meet the criteria. The process of setting the criteria must therefore take into account what is currently achievable. There is no set target but, as a rule of thumb, perhaps 10 per cent. of currently available products should be able to meet the criteria and receive an ecolabel. The criteria will be reviewed after about three years, and we shall tighten them up if necessary.

As I said, the life cycle assessment of the product group will take account of the environmental impacts of packaging—which the hon. Gentleman raised. We believe that this is the best way to deal with packaging in the ecolabelling scheme, because packaging inevitably forms an integral part of the product and is seen that way by the consumer. As a result, where packaging makes a significant contribution to the overall environmental impacts of the product, as is the case for hairsprays, this will be addressed by the final criteria.

To ensure that the environmental impacts of packaging are treated consistently between different product groups and to identify, if possible, best-practice rules, such as minimising packaging—that is the first rule—which could apply across the board, the Italians are conducting a study of the environmental impacts of packaging materials. We expect a final report from them shortly. They are also considering whether it might be possible to ecolabel the packaging of food, drink and pharmaceuticals where the contents are excluded from the scheme. It is not yet clear whether this would be a practical option.

Separately, the European Commission has also produced a draft directive on packaging and packaging waste that will establish specific markings for packaging alone and address some of the wider issues raised by packaging.

Ecolabelling is a European scheme, so some decisions, such as the adoption of product criteria, must be taken in Brussels to ensure consistency across all 12 countries of the Community. However, most of the work in administering, developing and promoting the scheme will be carried out at national level, and the EC regulation requires each member state to set up a competent body to run the scheme. The United Kingdom has set up the United Kingdom Ecolabelling Board.

The United Kingdom Ecolabelling Board, chaired by Dr. Elizabeth Nelson. began work in July in an advisory capacity, but, as I announced in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) on 20 October, we established it formally by regulations under the European Communities Act 1972 on 1 November.

As the House will know, we had originally hoped to launch the scheme before the end of this year. I assure the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish that I am as disappointed as he is at the lack of speed that others have shown in getting the scheme up and running. There have been some difficulties at a European level in setting up the necessary administrative arrangements. In particular, there have been lengthy delays with the establishment of the consultation forum of interest groups—industry, retailers, consumer and environmental groups—which must consider all criteria before they can be adopted. The development of product criteria has also proved more difficult and taken longer than originally planned.

The United Kingdom has played, and will continue to play, a leading role in the development of the scheme. Through our presidency of the Community, we have been pressing the Commission to implement the scheme speedily and asking that other member states show the same commitment to it as we are showing because we think that it is important. Certainly I am disappointed that some other states have continued to develop their own national schemes, so splitting their effort, sadly, to the detriment of the Community scheme.

The United Kingdom, jointly with the Commission, recently hosted a meeting, on 23 October, of representatives of the competent bodies of other member states to discuss issues of common interest—such as the assessment of applications, monitoring compliance and the promotion of the scheme. I understand that it was a very successful and positive event, which should do a lot to help push the scheme forward.

Many of the environmental issues involved in the development of product criteria are extremely complex and there is not always agreement on how best to tackle them. To help resolve some of the difficulties that have arisen, the Commission is now considering the appointment of a consultant to co-ordinate the use of the developing science of life cycle analysis in the product group studies.

Despite those delays, work is well under way—some half a dozen member states are leading or are about to begin studies of about 20 different product categories, some of which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The very thoroughness of the studies should mean that the final criteria have correspondingly greater credibility. They may take a bit longer, but hopefully they will be more accurate and credible when they are completed.

The United Kingdom has already submitted formal proposals for washing machines and dishwashers and, now that the necessary European infrastructure is finally getting into place, it should be possible for them to be adopted in January. Two other United Kingdom studies, on hairsprays and light bulbs, are also coming along well, although I must confess that a study of soil improvers is proving trickier due to a lack of data. I understand that the United Kingdom Ecolabelling Board is considering what further products it might study.

Other member states' studies are also progressing—some well, others somewhat more slowly. But overall, we should have agreement on a range of product groups in the first part of next year. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I want to participate in the launch of a large range of those products as soon as we possibly can.

Although large white goods such as washing machines and dishwashers should be among the first products to be covered by the scheme, the scheme will not be ready until a range of products is ready. Others that should be ready include paper products—writing and photocopying paper as well as kitchen rolls and toilet tissue—hairsprays and laundry detergents, everyday low-price products, about which the hon. Gentleman was worried.

I hope that manufacturers and retailers will not try to exploit the ecolabel by adding a mark-up to ecolabelling products. There may be cases where new, cleaner technology enables a manufacturer to produce an environmentally more benign product. However, even in such cases, the product should be competitively priced to succeed in the market against traditional products.

Although we should have preferred to meet our original plans to launch the scheme before the end of this year, what matters now is to ensure that the scheme is launched successfully early next year. To that end, the United Kingdom Ecolabelling Board is planning its publicity strategy to make the best possible use of its resources and get its message across effectively—to industry, retailers and ordinary consumers. We want to ensure that the scheme is a success.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.