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Workshop ‘Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information’ held at the ISO TC 207 Meeting, 3rd June 2019

Introduction

The ISO Technical Committee (TC) 207 focuses on developing standards in environmental management to support sustainable development. TC 207 has published more than 40 standards. Some of the TC 207 standards include ISO 14020 series, about general principles for environmental labels and declarations . From the 29th May to 7th June 2019, the TC 207 met in Berlin, Germany, to discuss the standards within their scope and during this week a workshop on the Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information was held by the Consumer Information Programme, UN Environment and the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU).

 

What are the Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information?

The Guidelines for Providing Product Sustainability Information (hereafter the Guidelines) were published in 2017 and provide a practical tool on how to communicate the sustainability attributes of products. They have received global recognition with more than 1,800 downloads from the One Planet website and citation as part of the resolutions from the last two UN Environment Assemblies: UNEA-3 and the environment and health resolution, UNEA-4 and the SCP resolution.

The Guidelines were launched by UN Environment and the International Trade Centre (ITC) under the Consumer Information Programme after two years of research and collaboration with inputs from over 125 organizations. The Guidelines present ten best practice principles for organisations to follow when making sustainability claims to best communicate accessible and reliable information to consumers to avoid greenwashing and consumer confusion. The best practice principles are divided into fundamental and aspirational. The five fundamental principles establish minimum requirements that must be met when providing product sustainability information to consumers and they are:

  • Reliability
  • Relevance
  • Clarity
  • Transparency
  • Accessibility

The Guidelines actively encourage organizations to take leadership and communicate quality, useful information to consumers to help towards achievement of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. Indeed, target 12.8 of the SDGs notes the need for better information to consumers: “by 2030, ensure that people everywhere have the relevant information and awareness for sustainable development and lifestyles in harmony with nature.”

 

What’s the relationship between the Guidelines and standards?

The Guidelines are a framework for organisations to follow to provide quality information to empower sustainable consumption decisions. The Guidelines can be used by businesses, governments, standard-setters, labelling bodies and NGOs: any organisation providing information.

Organisations with environmental labels or environmental standards organisations can benefit from the application of the Guidelines to product sustainability claims. Indeed, there is demonstrated proof of standard-setters successfully applying the Guidelines’ ten principles through the ‘roadtesting’ exercise undertaken in 2018, which was a project that aimed to test the applicability and utility of the Guidelines for those providing product sustainability information. Several standard-setters took part including Cruelty Free International, the Marine Stewardship Council and Zerya Producciones sin Residuos S.L. You can read each of their case studies from the roadtesting project on the Product Sustainability Information Hub.

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FIGURE 1: TESTIMONY FROM CRUELTY FREE INTERNATIONAL OF APPLYING THE GUIDELINES FOR PROVIDING PRODUCT SUSTAINABILITY INFORMATION

All of the organisations that participated in the roadtesting project found the Guidelines’ 10 Principles easy to comprehend and saw the potential to help organizations improve the communication tools they employ. The challenges and strengths in applying the different principles, however, varied by type of organization and claim and, specifically, for standard-setters they found principle 7 (Behaviour Change and Longer Term Impact) hard to apply as they usually do not have direct interaction with individual end consumers and have a more B2B relationship. Principle 6 of including all three dimensions of sustainability was hard to apply for single-issue certification schemes as their claims referred to one aspect rather than a general measure of sustainability. These challenges though were useful for the organisations to reflect on their global growth and next steps.

Although, useful to standard-setters and other organisations types, the Guidelines do not present a standard by which companies can be officially certified against; rather, they are a framework for aligning sustainability communication. This is a major difference between the Guidelines and the ISO standards on environmental labelling for example, or the standard on making ethical claims (ISO/PRF TS 17033) which is due to be published later in 2018.

During the workshop in Berlin, in which more than forty people participated, there were calls for the Consumer Information Programme to work more closely with ISO in its future work as there are many overlapping work areas, particularly in the field of the work of the TC 207 and environmental management towards sustainable development. The Consumer Information Programme recognizes the shared purpose of much of the work that ISO does and future endeavors will be explored: claims of carbon neutrality was an area proposed for potential collaboration as certain standards and limits need to be set on products or companies claiming to be carbon neutral to avoid greenwashing.

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FIGURE 2: PARTICIPANTS AND SPEAKERS AT THE WORKSHOP IN BERLIN, 3RD JUNE 2019.

For more information, please contact the Consumer Information Programme: ciscp@un.org

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