September 15, 2006, Business Standard
New Delhi, India

The scheme is an orphan. The ministry of environment has failed miserably in taking positive action.

One of the biggest changes in the last decade is the high degree of awareness amongst urban schoolchildren of environmental issues. But will these same children, when they begin to wield authority in the workplace, continue to be as aware?

The question assumes importance in the light of a new report* by CUTS, an advocacy group based in Jaipur, on ecolabelling in India. Ecolabelling has been a shining failure here, it says, and examines the reasons why. It also suggests what needs to be done.

There are three types of ecolabelling. Type I is the best because it is certified by an independent agency. Type II is a self-declaration of green virtue, and Type III is a mere listing of the product’s virtues without any form of endorsement.

The purpose of ecolabels is to help the consumer decide if he wants to buy the product. In Europe, ecolabels are a virtual must and, indeed, serve as a non-governmental, non-tariff barrier. No label, no sale.

“The first ecolabelled products were launched in Germany in the late 1970s and since then it has become one of the more high profile market-based tools for achieving environmental objectives,” says the report.

India, never a shirker when it comes to virtue, adopted ecolabelling as being a “good” thing in 1991, even before it was endorsed in 1992 by the UN. And that done, it went back to sleep.

The administrative responsibility is vested in the ministry of environment and forests. It sets the standards. The label is a matka.

“However, even after 15 years in existence, only 12 manufacturers of products like paper, pulp, leather and wood particleboard have received the Ecomark licence.” Bad? Well, there’s more to come. “Furthermore, these same licensees hardly use the Ecomark symbol as none of them find any benefit in it.”

CUTS decided to find out why the scheme has failed so spectacularly in India. It circulated a questionnaire and conducted follow-up discussions with a large number of companies. Other data collection techniques were also used in respect of the different government agencies.

The report also says that “another reason for derailment was that some business lobbies worked hard to disrupt it: the detergent industry being a case in point.” But this, the report suggests, is the lesser problem. The biggest problem is government apathy.

“The BIS treats the Ecomark Scheme like a stepchild. Communication between different branches/ministries of the government has been very poor at times, responsibilities have got diffused and the entire management has been weak.”

Net result: the scheme has no parentage and is an orphan. The ministry of environment, which excels in negative actions, has failed miserably in taking positive action. One can only guess at the reasons but in the Indian context, I am sure everyone will guess correctly.

So what needs to be done? The report has made the following recommendations.

The existing three-tier system has been too bureaucratic. So a new, independent board should be set up.

The number of products should be prioritised and product categories to be chosen on measurable parameters.

The scheme needs to be made more forward looking to account for things like electronics.

Since ecolabels are used as non-tariff barriers, domestic as well as international requirements need to be balanced while forming criteria. The government should press for equivalence and mutual recognition of the schemes of different countries at the WTO.
One shortcoming of the report, however, is that it fails to point out that apart from being incompetent, the government is also the biggest degrader of the environment, if only because it is also the biggest producer of pollutants.

*Why is India’s Ecomark scheme unsuccessful?, by P S Mehta