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Product sustainability criteria in ecolabels: a complete analysis of the Blue Angel with focus on longevity and social criteria

Abstract

Purpose

A basic principle for Type I ecolabels is to consider the whole product life cycle in order to avoid transferring impacts from one life cycle phase or environmental medium to another. By using the example of the Blue Angel, this paper provides an overview of the typical criteria over the product life cycle established in ecolabels for different product categories. Further, the paper provides details about two selected issues that are of particular concern in the current debate within product policy: the longevity of products and the coverage of social aspects.

Methods

The presented results are based on desk research, which included the creation of product and criteria categories and a complete analysis of all existing Blue Angel criteria sets for products.

Results and discussion

The coverage of different life cycle phases with criteria is very diverse, as expected, and varies across product categories. A focus of the Blue Angel is on the use phase. While longevity criteria are present in half of the Blue Angel criteria sets, they are in most cases not too comprehensive. The current discussion on adequate methodologies with regard to reparability and longevity, in general, is however speeding up at EU level, and this will also influence ecolabels. Social criteria are still rare in the Blue Angel, especially when it comes to social aspects during raw material extraction. There is, however, the intention to elaborate a more systematic basis for social criteria within the Blue Angel.

Conclusions

While the ongoing debates on longevity and social criteria will most likely result in such criteria being applied to more product groups in Type I ecolabels, ecolabels always have to find a compromise between coverage of ideally all relevant life cycle impacts for which an improvement potential exists on the one hand, and feasibility for licensees to comply with the criteria and provide the according verification on the other.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    “Criteria set” in this article refers to the document containing all criteria for one product group or service for which the Blue Angel can be awarded.

  2. 2.

    Examples from the Blue Angel include criteria limiting emissions of CO2 equivalents within a certain life cycle phase or toxicity of the product for aquatic organisms expressed as critical dilution volume.

  3. 3.

    The Ecodesign Directive contains a more comprehensive list with criteria (see Annex I, part 1, no. 1.3), including, for instance, also the use of recycled material and indicators for the reusability, recyclability and product life time, which does, however, not cover all relevant aspects (e.g. noise and radiation emissions). The Ecolabel Regulation mentions only a limited number of rather broad categories of criteria in article 6 (par. 3).

  4. 4.

    Cf. Suikkanen and Nissinen (2017) for a similar analysis on the EU and the Nordic ecolabels.

  5. 5.

    The exact wording of the requirement is that information must be provided ‘about the typical service life span or use intensity (e.g. in printed pages), which the device is designed for in its default configuration assuming typical user behaviour’ (RAL 2017a). This wording has, unfortunately, been interpreted so far by licensees in a way that they provide information on the recommended maximum number of printed pages per month, which was not the intention of adopting this requirement.

  6. 6.

    Note that the actual environmental impact of warranty/legal guarantee rules is an intensely debated topic currently between the repair sector, environmental, and consumer protection groups, as it is claimed that longer guarantees may even lead to destroying products taken back by the manufacturer or seller instead of repair. The evidence base with regard to this subject is, however, very limited, as our own research has shown us.

  7. 7.

    ‘Exchange parts’ are defined as ‘parts that are expected to need replacement during the supposed service life under typical conditions of use (e.g. ink absorber, excess toner reservoir, paper feed)’, as opposed to spare parts, which are defined as ‘components or assemblies that can potentially fail within the service life of the products’ including e.g. ‘hinges of casing parts, paper trays etc. as well as cable connections and electronic components which might be damaged by over-heating’ (RAL 2017a).

  8. 8.

    For shoes, a new version of the criteria exists which is not yet uploaded to the Blue Angel Website at the time of writing this paper but was submitted for decision by the Blue Angel ecolabel board (the ‘Jury Umweltzeichen’).

  9. 9.

    Note that there are sporadic ISO conventions that cover such aspects, e. g. Convention no. 107 “Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention” from 1957 (ILO 2018), but the main focus of the ILO conventions are workers’ rights, of course.

  10. 10.

    At the time of writing this paper, a first interim report on the scoring system is available, which also discusses in detail further available assessment methods (cf. JRC 2018).

  11. 11.

    A research project on the integration of social aspects into Blue Angel criteria on behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency is currently in preparation.

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Acknowledgements

The research underlying this paper was performed within a project on the development of Blue Angel criteria funded by the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA). The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Federal Environment Agency.

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Correspondence to Laura Spengler.

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Spengler, L., Jepsen, D., Zimmermann, T. et al. Product sustainability criteria in ecolabels: a complete analysis of the Blue Angel with focus on longevity and social criteria. Int J Life Cycle Assess (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-019-01642-6

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Keywords

  • Blue Angel
  • Durability
  • Ecolabel criteria
  • Ecolabels
  • Environmental product policy
  • Longevity
  • Reparability
  • Social criteria