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India's Ecomark - Stuck in Limbo

Interview with Consumer Activist, N.G.Wagle


"Eco-friendly" is the buzzword for the environment-conscious consumer of today. However, lack of information and ineffective regulation have resulted in "greenwashing" - corporations making misleading claims about the environmental benefits of their products or organization. Vague and misleading claims leave the consumer confused and distrustful of such labels. Eco-labelling schemes -- which are voluntary, market-based schemes -- have been implemented in some countries, with varied degrees of success. In 1991, the Government of India instituted the Ecomark scheme to help consumers identify products that have a reduced environmental impact. Ten years on, few consumers are aware of the existence of the scheme, and almost no products bear the Ecomark label. Making India Green (MIG) spoke to consumer activist, N.G.Wagle (NGW), about the status of Ecomark scheme and the problems with its implementation.

MIG: Can you give a brief overview of the Ecomark scheme and the method of implementation that was planned?

NGW: The Government of India (GOI) instituted in 1991 a scheme, voluntary in nature, to label a basket of consumer products as "environment friendly." The basic objective of the scheme was to encourage the consumption of such products through the award of a distinguishing sign of an "Ecomark." The inherent principle of the Ecomark was to assign the label to a product, which is made, used or disposed of in a way that significantly reduces the harm it would otherwise cause to the environment. Ecolabelled products must also satisfy the quality, performance and safety requirements laid down for the specific product by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). The norms for eco-labelling are established by the Ecomark Technical Committee of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB, Ministry of Environment and Forests, GOI). BIS is the implementing authority for the Ecomark as well as the ISI mark, which is a necessary adjunct.

MIG: What were the problems encountered during implementation?

NGW: Industry argument has all along been that the criteria for eco-labelling are not relevant to Indian conditions, nor does the scheme give any encouragement to improve technology. It stifles innovation and freezes development of newer alternatives to existing products. The setting-up of eco-criteria was said to be a rushed exercise, "negative listing" of ingredients is undesirable and there was too much emphasis on safety (which is the job of other legislation/agencies). The criteria, say industry spokespersons, are mostly based on popular perceptions of environment safety and would legitimise inferior products. Finally, the crux of the argument was that brand equity would get less importance in the marketplace. The argument ends with the line that the Ecomark is inherently incompatible with rapid changes in the FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) scene.

MIG: What is the present status of implementation of the scheme?

NGW: The first Ecomark was awarded some five years ago to a Godrej product, "Ezee," a liquid detergent for washing special /delicate fabrics (such as silk and wool). The ownership of the brand passed to Procter and Gamble, their strategic partner, which had different business considerations from the parent company and which were prompted by the formers multinational policy. Now a license has been granted to Madhya Bharat Paper Ltd., Bilaspur (M.P.) for use of the Ecomark on two types of writing and printing papers. In fact, in order to attract applicants for the Ecomark, the M.P. Government sanctioned an exemption of 50 per cent in the consent/renewal of consent fee to all industries awarded with the mark. Similar fiscal concessions and financial incentives were recommended by the CPCB to popularise the scheme. Interactive meetings with industry bodies like FICCI and CII were held, but to no avail. Yet, out of the 14 product categories across which eco-criteria have been formulated for a few hundreds of consumer goods, after years of effort by representatives of the industry, research laboratories, technical experts and consumer organisations, only two within a single category (paper) sought and got the Ecomark.

MIG: What is the level of awareness about the scheme among ordinary consumers in India?

NGW: Ordinary consumers are hardly aware of the Ecomark or the concept itself. Even the ISI mark took off only when there was an element of compulsion as in the case of food colours and food additives, condensed milk and baby milk powder, where health and safety are concerned. Or, in the buying policy of government indenting agencies, where ISI marked products were given preference. Household electrical appliances, domestic pressure stoves are some items brought under state orders for mandatory marking but enforcement is lax. BIS response to failures of ISI marked products bought by consumers is lukewarm. Hence, the mark does not inspire confidence with consumers who are cynical about official certification for reasons known to all. Industry opines that the Indian consumer is more driven by price considerations and brand loyalty rather than the esoteric concept and personal conviction to save the environment.

MIG: What do you feel, should be done to aid implementation of the Ecomark?

NGW: The government, central and state, quasi-government bodies and other local institutions, which constitute nearly 80 per cent of buyers of goods, should set an example by insisting on eco-products giving a price and priority preference to them. If the government and other state institutions do not have faith in certified goods, be they ISI or Ecomarked, then the common consumer too will not choose such products. The industry puts a scare that eco-labelled products will cost more and hence, consumers will shift to others (unlabelled), particularly in price-sensitive ones. The alternative is compulsion, which in the present scenario of liberalisation, is not acceptable.

MIG: How much does consumer education and awareness contribute to the success or failure of such labelling schemes?

NGW: Consumer education is part of the school syllabus in higher classes. Children should be taught about the environmental impact of products and processes just as the effects of leaded fuel and thin plastics were focused on in the media and in some educational institutions. The media has a real role to play to spread the message of environmental safety. GOI has already attempted to enhance awareness of the Ecomark in India through a private publication, WISTA ECOMARK, which commissioned six (bimonthly) issues from April 1999 and circulated about 600 copies to Central and State governments, NGOs, consultants, research institutes, industries and consumer organisations and some overseas. I do not think that this made a significant impact in diffusing information or creating public awareness.

N.G.Wagle, a chemical technologist, is the past chairman of the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI) and member of its managing committee. He edits the monthly journal, KEEMAT, of CGSI. He is also Vice-President of the Association of Consumers Action on Safety and Health (ACASH) and represents it on the Ecomark Technical Committee.

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