Thematic session on access to information (UNECE Aarhus convention – working group of parties)

UN Geneva Peacock

These notes are from a session which is part of the working group meeting of the parties of the Aarhus Convention on 22 June 2022. It’s only part of the meeting, which the full details of can be found on the UNECE site. The thematic session on access to information focused on products and their environmental information, which is linked to SDG 12 and Article 5 of the convention and also linked to the European Green Deal. The chair opening pointed out that this session is needed when considering the need to inform the public about products and their associated environmental information. There is also recognition of the linkage between product information and the recommendation on electronic environmental information – issues such as addressing recyclability, repairability, and life cycle can benefit from digitalisation. There is awareness of different labelling and expectation that consumers will use this information to make pro-environmental choices and the importance of sharing the information openly. Public access to product information and digitalisation; avoiding greenwashing; and use of mechanisms such as ecolabeling, energy-labelling and sharing information.

Officially, the session was about “The Working Group will be invited to focus its discussion on advancing public access to environment-related product information, including on: (a) public access to product information and digitalization; (b) public access to product information and measures against greenwashing; and (c) means to encourage operators to inform the public (eco-labelling, ecoauditing, environmental, social and governance solutions).”

The keynote on the digitalisation of environmental information was by Stefan Jensen of the EEA. The presentation is part of the European environment information and observation network. It includes 38 countries that provide information about the environment. EEA also worked with Aarhus countries through UNECE to share information about environmental information. The new strategy of the EEA is not sectoral but more around specific environmental objectives. There is a specific group on digitalisation and information sources. Within the European Green Deal and the EEA work area there is now a focus on different work areas and no longer a specific focus on air or water. The new circular economy action plan is making links to UNECE to issues such as developing tools to support processes through open data and the use of information technologies. EEA/Eionet got a digitalisation framework to support the circular economy and started to explore 19 digital product passports – such as textile and electronic. The objectives of the circular economy are across the EU and considering a better use of ICT to improve the reuse of materials and products. The sustainable product initiative and the empowerment of consumers are on a more advanced stage. On the action side, the inclusion of information that is included in PRTRs to support such actions. There are also actions again greenwashing – asking businesses to substantiate the claims and that should support both B2C and B2B, The product passport is can support the digitalisation – it can allow tracking of the raw material that comes to the product, allowing manufacturers to design the product though a “digital twin”, tracking the life cycle of the product and supporting its repair, then checking the process in the market, also links to policies, and finally, citizens are seen as taking part through their decisions. Each product will have unique identifiers and a specific address. The information will be stored by trusted parties and it also requires information to be encrypted and allow the protection of information. We need proper standards and the ability of verification, The legal initiative is partially successful with a lot of industries asking for exceptions. There is much more ambition than what is it implemented.

EIONET goals and range
Links between EEA work and Aarhus efforts

Charlotta Von Troil, Senior Ministerial Advisor, Legislative Affairs, Ministry for the Environment,
Finland – Ministry of the environment. Finlands has established policies and initiatives in the context of the circular economy. Finland was the first to set a roadmap for a circular economy in 2016, and is also working with the EU circular economy. The EU includes tools to empower consumers to assess the environmental impact of products and avoid greenwashing. The government adopted a circular economy strategy and put a cap on the use of materials – both renewable and non-renewable. There are issues with compiling information about circular economy services that can be shared with citizens. There is an aim to make Finland leading in the knowledge area of the circular economy. There is also an integration of circular economy into education – both basic and higher. In terms of the information on the environmental characteristics of products. There are aspects within the ecodesign directive and also ecolabel that is going on since 1989 (the Nordic Swan Ecolabel). They update the roadmap over the funds for creating a future-oriented organisation (www.sitra.fi), which is looking at sustainability, democracy and citizenship.

The Strategic objectives of Eionet

Rade Ostojić, Head, Group for Standards and Cleaner Production, Ministry of Environmental
Protection, Serbia, experience from ecolabeling in Serbia. Ecolabeling is increasing but not as wide as in the Nordic case. There is a PRTR website of the country and you can see the information – but that is for environmental professionalists. for the consumer, there is some information on the product – e.g. recycling or material. The ecolabel for Serbia is aimed to record the environmental impact of a product. The law was set in 2004, and there are two versions of the rulebook in 2009 and 2016, and after that (2018), also uses ISO standard (14024:2018). They are following the EC guidelines and following the European process during their membership period. There is a monitoring of the eco-labelling by the commission. There are 26 product groups which are dealing with 373 products with 4 licences. The EU ecolabel is much bigger with 89,000 products. The products include roof tiles, flooring, etc. The experience from Serbia was the need to keep it present and consider the competitiveness of companies stand out, but you also need to support them and promote them. The eco-labelling is a dynamic process, so it might be more suitable for public/private collaboration. Considering Tag It Smart and blockchain can be technologies that can support it.

Elisabeth Tuerk, Director, Economic Cooperation and Trade, UNECE – work on traceability of supply chain, working with ITC. They created a sustainability pledge toolbox, recommendations and other normative tools. Working on the environmental, social dimensions, value chain and circular economy. There is a need to provide information to businesses and consumers. They started by looking at textiles and footwear – e.g. buying a cotton t-shirt. Aiming to trace from the moment the cotton was seeded. There is a need for traceability and transparency of the information of producers. Access to information is required throughout the supply chain. They are experimenting with blockchain cotton and leather – by spraying DNA markers and they follow it throughout. Complicated exercise and maybe do it on other products. Challenges – inclusivity and capacity: traceability through blockchain is complex for high-end producers but there is an issue for small companies and can lead to barriers to market. The information is as good as the information that is fed to the blockchain. Also, we need cooperation between stakeholders and actors.

Regina Taimasova-Bumbaca, Advisor, Division of Inclusive and Sustainable Trade, International
Trade Center. Covering the International Trade Centre and the ICT standards Map Tool and guidelines for providing product sustainability information. There are guidelines from 2017 to consider the information that should be provided on products as part of the One Planet initiative. The principles in the guidelines are reliability, transparency, relevance, accessibility, and clarity. There are definitions for each of these. There are aspirational principles – behaviour change and larger and longer-term impact. Products should contribute to social, economic and environmental aspects. using multi-channel and innovative approaches and providing consumers with comparable information. The guidelines are to address SDG 12. The guidelines are available online and are also coming with training resources. There is also a regional project to increase capacity to deal with eco-labelling.

Another project that started in 2011 is part of the ITC that allows the ability to access information about standards and allows to find and use them. The standard map can be found here https://www.standardsmap.org/en/home and can be very useful in helping people understand what a standard actually means.

Emma Pagliarusco, Youth and Environment Europe and the European ECO Forum. The recent developments can help in accessing environmental information about products to young people. It is rarely used by youth and it is part of achieving intergenerational justice. There is a need to reach young consumers and information. As young people, it is important to protect young people from greenwashing – product passports can support this. As a tool for the circular economy can support young entrepreneurs and promote transparent competition especially when they focus on sustainable products. There is very little attention to youth in the new recommendation on electronic information tools. Product passports need to support young people and there is a need for the representation of the youth within the Aarhus process.

France, the office for environmental transition: since 2020, France has a law on climate and resilience – categories of repairing the electronic product, with a mark out of 10 that is labelled on a product. Adopted a regulation on consumer information on waste. Manufacturers need to report on several sustainability aspects (e.g. microplastic) and some statements are not allowed if they can’t be proved.

Switzerland also developed legislation to avoid greenwashing. Switzerland also created a framework for a circular economy. Greenwashing is dealt with by the trading standard body, and factual statements need to be proved. This includes discussion in courts around standards and claims.

The United Kingdom, there is a set of guidance from 2021 around environmental claims. There are plans for enforcing it on companies, and there is information for consumers with 5 level scales. CMA looked at greenwashing and considered the lessons to improve information to consumers. The Green Climate Code can be useful examples

the EEB highlighted that sustainable Products Initiative and the extension of the scope of the ecodesign regulation; proposal against false green claims; the use of product passports to help consumers and enforcement bodies. and link with product passport idea and access to info taskforce.

ECSA highlighted that there is now an important role for the public to share information and check the accuracy of claims that producers make about their products and their environmental performance. We can learn from the effort of the US Youth Climate Finance Alliance which bring together youth to analyse financial information from corporations, or the Germany-based CorrelAid which brings many data scientists who want to contribute to good causes, in analysing data and information and turning it into forms that are suitable for a wide audience. We cannot expect that the release of information will be enough, without efforts to provide the capabilities within civil society to use the data, and make it legible and useful.

Especially when considering product information and sharing it with the public, a specific effort is required to ensure that digital inequalities are addressed – from ownership of devices to the ability to use the data in a meaningful way. There is a need to consider the impacts on justice and enable sense-making of the information – not just to provide it in expert language that interested members of the public cannot make sense of. 

The public also has a role in monitoring and assessing some of the claims that are made by producers. There is a growing effort by food standard agencies to utilise citizen science in sampling products and sharing information. It is worth considering where such an active role in monitoring can fit within product information and support the public to fulfil its ability to act against greenwashing and provide evidence to other members of the public and the authorities. 

Eco-Tiras: there are problems in implementation in access to information. In many areas of the environment, there is a lack of limitation on public access to the primary data. There is also some aspects of selling data and charging for accessing it. There are unreasonably high costs even when the data is old.

Chair summary The thematic stimulate discussion outcomes: there is an increase of good practices and initiatives and increased public access to product information; access to enough product information is important to support consumers’ decisions; It is important to SDG 12 and support transition to a green and circular economy. Ecolabeling and product passports nad other mechanisms are needed. We need to increase awareness and education of the public to use this information. Important to have youth, civil society and the public in promoting sustainable consumption. Need cooperation with One Planet framework.

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