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Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag

Information on the project

Opportunities and criteria for a sustainability label for consumers

Thematic area: Diverse topics
Analytical approach: TA project
Topic initiative: Committee on Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection
Status: completed
Duration: 2012 till 2014

Background and central aspects of the topic

For consumers, an orientation of consumer behaviour towards ecological and social criteria implies a considerable information effort which often is unmanageable in everyday practice. For this reason and for some time already, there is a debate among experts that product labelling by means of such a comprehensive label considering all sustainability criteria possibly could provide consumers with reliable and precise information at the point of sale. Thus, the development of an »overall sustainability label« would be helpful in order to ensure transparency regarding the sustainability characteristics of products and to be able to communicate these characteristics in a credible, rapid and understandable manner.

Against this background, the TAB has been commissioned by the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment of the German Bundestag to carry out a study entitled »Opportunities and criteria for an overall sustainability label«. The objective of the project was not to work out an own suggestion regarding the development and establishment of an overall sustainability label, but to present and to analyze the current state of discussions as well as to structure and to classify already existing and partly controversial suggestions and concepts.

Results

Ideally, an overall sustainability label will achieve the objective of making a substantial contribution to a more sustainable society – preferably with a high market penetration and appreciation –, if it provides sufficient incentives regarding the development of more sustainable products and services and, thus, responds to the needs of both consumers and producers. In practice, however, implementation proves to be rather difficult, as financial and organizational restrictions as well as different interests of the players involved are counteracting the realization of such an ideal label and are calling for compromises.

Thus, specific challenges have to be met for establishing an overall sustainability label. Methods and procedures have to be developed in order to ensure that the requirements regarding the sustainability impacts of a product or a service can be measured and compared by means of certain criteria and indicators. Moreover, for an overall sustainability label aiming at providing consumers with a reliable decision-making aid with regard to goods as diverse as food, children's toys, cars or holiday trips, it is particularly difficult to evaluate such heterogeneous products in a consistent way and to ensure a comparable level of requirements for awarding the label. As a result, a product-specific sustainability assessment covering the entire life cycle probably is most likely to be realized for goods coming from manageable and stable value-added chains.

The broad range of tasks involved in the implementation of more sustainable production and consumption patterns as well as the different objectives of an overall sustainability label illustrate that such a label cannot be the sole and probably not even the central instrument for achieving a more sustainable consumption. In fact, its specific function mainly consists in the provision of simplified and reliable information for consumers in order to facilitate their decision for more sustainable products, combined with incentives for manufacturers, service providers and trade in order to encourage them to make their processes and products more sustainable.

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