The doubts stem from the profusion in Europe of labeling and other communication vehicles for making green claims, which has sown confusion and distrust among consumers and even downstream business customers.
Around 40 percent of consumers do not believe the accuracy of assertions by companies of the environmental advantages of their products, according to the European Commission.
Public distrust is also increased by the wide range of different ways employed by companies and their consultancies to measure contributions by-products to environmental protection.
The Commission, the European Union’s Brussels-based executive, considers that the answers to the problems lie in its Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) scheme, which aims to use common methods for measuring and communicating the environmental performance of products.
Conceived around seven years ago with a series of pilot projects only just being completed, including one covering decorative paints, it is now close to being introduced across Europe. A total of 280 companies and organizations across a variety of industries have taken part in the pilots.
CEPE, the European trade association for coatings, has just started holding workshops on PEF for its members. It has also been creating measuring tools for coatings PEFs with the aim of going live with the scheme in the second half of next year.
The Commission sees PEF in particular as providing a platform for a rapidly expanding European single market for green products. It would harmonize measuring standards across the region for measuring the environmental performance of coatings and other products.
The scheme focuses on the development of general methodologies, derived from existing International Standards Organization (ISO) and other standards and created by the Commission’s own Joint Research Council (JRC) in Italy. Specific sectors like coatings are creating their own product category rules (PEFCRs).
A key requirement is that the methodologies should take into account environmental impacts in a balanced way throughout the product’s life cycle, by using information from life cycle assessments (LCAs) and inventories (LCIs).
For coatings producers, this approach should allow the use of indicators which give a broader profile of a product than ones applied by conventional green labeling schemes. They believe that without prominence being given, for example, to functionalities performance, which can be linked to the overall environmental protection provided by the labeling scheme, potential users are given a distorted view of the qualities of a product.
For some sections of the European coatings industry, PEF is increasingly being seen as offering an alternative or even a replacement for labeling schemes, even the EU’s own Ecolabel system.
“The Ecolabel system has now reached its limit and starts to get in conflict with what the sector considers as a ‘good quality paint’,” said CEPE’s Deco group in a comparison study of Ecolabel and PEF. “Evermore driving a substitution or lowering of hazardous substances beyond legislative requirements will compromise the paint quality. The PEF of paint offers a more holistic approach and is considered as a better criterion for the consumer to make ‘a choice for the planet’. (A quality like durability) of paint is valued by the PEF system as well as the impact on the environment over the full-lifecycle.”
In a CEPE survey earlier this year of companies holding an Ecolabel license for exterior and interior paints and varnishes, around half of the respondents mentioned that they had doubts about continuing with the scheme. About 60 percent of respondents thought that the effort of maintaining Ecolabel is not worth the benefit, while roughly 40 percent considered that paint quality might be compromised by trying to ensure compliance with Ecolabel criteria.
The German Paint and Printing Ink Association (VdL) heavily criticized the German government’s Blue Angel label scheme in November (2019) for introducing new draft criteria which would banish all preservatives from waterborne wall paints.
“The drastically tightened criteria would lead to 80 percent fewer colors bearing the ecolabel in future,” said Martin Engelmann, VdL managing director, adding the omission of preservatives for all wall colors was technically not possible.
“Modern, water-based paints need protection against fungi and bacteria,” he continued, saying that paint in millions of containers annually in Germany would be spoiled before they reached the consumer.
The Blue Angel’s move against waterborne paints’ preservatives reflects a trend among labeling operations in Europe of a tightening-up of criteria combined with having fewer of them.
The European Commission has been wanting Ecolabel’s criteria to be stricter by linking them to the methodologies developed for PEF applications. Since under EU legislation the Ecolabel criteria have to be based on LCA studies and the objective is that PEF methods should be best practice in LCA work close links between the two seems only to be logical.
The Commission does not want PEF to be a stand-alone entity. Integration with Ecolabel might become its preferred option and even eventually that of dubious coatings producers, especially SMEs, on the grounds of costs.
VdL has warned about the expense for SMEs of making life-cycle assessments particularly by having to hire consultants. Then there are the additional costs of having to have the LCAs verified.
The Commission points out that a single set of environmental performance criteria through PEF would save money for SMEs marketing their coatings or other products in different European markets, each with their own product requirements for environmental assessments. A PEF-Ecolabel merger would decrease those costs even further.
Some environmentalists warn that too much reliance on LCA-based methodologies narrows the scope of PEF
“The application of LCA is subjective, open to interpretation and the nature of the methodology means that it is better at capturing some environmental impacts more than others,” explained Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), Brussels, an NGO which is a member of the PEF steering committee.
“In general, LCA assesses well impacts which can be counted – e.g. carbon emissions, freshwater use, air pollution – and less so more qualitative but nevertheless important categories – e.g. biodiversity loss, toxicity exposure, noise pollution and marine litter,” he added.
PEF could be regarded as leaving too many gaps if the present policy behind it remains unchanged. Other standards could still be required to fill those gaps.