In April, I presented my dream of the Perfect Label Future, in which every product contained within itself a universe of self-identifying information.
Not just all of its ingredients and every possible kind of health-related danger its consumption might pose. I also want a breakdown of the transnational production system that produced it, down to which semiconductor came from which province of which country. I want to know how much of it was produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. I want to know the wages and benefits and union status of the workers who built it or the farm laborers who picked it. I want the full scoop.
In the U.S., labeling initiatives are generally resisted by the business community, which would rather consumers didn't know what they were buying. But in the European Union, it's a different story. One part of my Perfect Label Future is on the way. Coming down the pike is the most ambitious labeling effort yet envisioned, an E.U. Directive that will force manufacturers of "energy-using products" to document exactly how much energy is consumed in the entire life cycle of a given product. That includes, for example, the energy used to dig ore out of the ground, smelt it, transport it, and use it the manufacturing process, the energy consumed by the product during its active life, and the energy used to dispose of it at the end of its life cycle.
InfoWorld's Ephraim Schwartz has two excellent columns on the likely implications of the EuP directive, which is just the latest in a series of E.U. mandates aimed at bringing environmental responsibility to the marketplace. The goal is to encourage sound ecodesign and vastly improve energy efficiency. As the directive declares: "In the interest of sustainable development, continuous improvement in the overall environmental impact of [energy-using] products should be encouraged, notably by identifying the major sources of negative environmental impacts and avoiding transfer of pollution, when this improvement does not entail excessive costs."
Environmental economists should applaud. The EuP directive is a step towards "getting the prices right" -- making the polluter pay for the full costs of his pollution. Because before one can put an accurate price on energy consumption -- with its associated environmental costs -- one must know exactly how much energy is being consumed.
For manufacturers, the prospects are daunting. Somewhere, Kafka is chuckling. The bureaucratic implications are mind-boggling. Just consider, for example, the reams of studies and heated debate over how to calculate the energy efficiency of corn-based ethanol (do you count the energy consumed in making the tractors that plow the corn fields? What about the energy consumed growing the food that the farm laborers eat before driving the tractors? And so on.) Now multiply that confusion to take into account every energy-using product sold in the European Union. That's a lot of paperwork. (But it's also, as Schwartz notes, a great market opportunity for new companies that will specialize in evaluating product life-cycle energy consumption!)
The cost of doing business for companies that operate in E.U. markets will undoubtedly rise, in the short term. In Taiwan, where the production of energy-using products is big business, government and industry are already scrambling to conform. But as Schwartz observes, in the long run, the benefits both for individual companies and society at large in taking the hardest look possible at the amount of energy used to make things, and to conserve in every way possible, are huge.
But in the future, products meeting EuP minimum standards will receive a CE (Conformiti Europienne) approval logo on their packaging. The E.U. will create an ecological profile of the energy used during the lifetime of a product so that green-minded consumers can compare similar products.
And once companies realize that they can't actively ignore environmental attributes, they will develop standards and it will become part of how they operate. In time, it will reduce waste and the need for new raw materials and ultimately reduce cost.
And maybe even help ward off the challenges of peak oil and climate change. It's all in the label.