The wish to require companies to provide the public with information on the environmental impact of their products has emerged in France during the "Grenelle Environnement", a set of negotiations between environmental NGOs and industry sectors, which aimed at modernising French environmental policies. However, technical difficulties have led French authorities to start with an experimental phase, scheduled to last a minimum of one year, before deciding whether to go further, for instance by proposing to extend such a requirement at European level.
One year experimentation
A total of 168 companies, of which 8 cosmetics companies  , participated in the experimental phase, which was launched in July 2011. "The experiment focuses on both the product and the packaging," says Juliette Mélédié, Director of Economic, Environmental and International Affairs at the French Federation of Beauty Companies (FEBEA). France made the choice of a multi-criteria approach, not limited to Greenhouse Gas Emissions, and based on life cycle analysis (LCA) using calculation methods identical for each product category. As far as cosmetics are concerned, a standard for shampoos and shower gels was published on April 2011.
The goals of the experimental phase are: to enable consumers to use environmental criteria for their purchasing decisions, to raise public awareness about the environmental impact of manufactured goods and to provide businesses with the opportunity to promote their environmental commitments. To simplify the way the information is communicated to the public, the French Consumer Industries Research Institute (ILEC) and its partners have proposed to harmonise both the semantic and the logos.
A full assessment of the first year of experimentation is in progress and will be submitted to the Parliament in early 2013. Juliette Mélédié emphasizes that the multi-criteria approach eventually proved relevant. “In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, most often selected indicators include water and biodiversity.”
Most companies chose to display the environmental information through the internet. "Only one out three companies displayed the information on the product or on the point of sale," says Juliette Mélédié.
According to Jean-Florent Campion, International Sustainable Development Manager at L’Oréal, the outcome of the participation of the French cosmetics giant in the experimentation - through its Garnier Ultra-Doux brand - is rather mitigated. "A total of 19 products, representing 10% of the French shampoo market, were involved in this testing phase." The main difficulty, he said, was the lack of accurate data that implied using general databases. "In the event the display of environmental information would become a general requirement, it would be necessary to set up complex logistics and information systems.”
Jean-Florent Campion also points out the uncertainties linked to the LCA method. Due to the lack of precision of the data used, the difference between two products would be significant only beyond 15 to 20%.
In the case of Garnier products, the results were posted on the website of the brand. Studies conducted among consumers receiving news form the brand’s website showed a very good value given to the initiative and a good understanding of the information provided. However, a larger study conducted in partnership with Carrefour showed that the retailer’s customers, while being highly interested in the initiative, lack of confidence in the information provided to them and are only marginally influenced by it when it comes to purchasing shampoo.
As far as L’Occitane - another participant in the experimentation phase - is concerned, the findings are quite similar. The brand conducted the test on a shea butter hand cream, since it has a good control and knowledge on the supply chain for this product. The environmental information was display on the brand’s website but also in its shops. "It has been necessary to train the sales staff, to learn how to respond to customers’ questions, including providing practical advice," says Marielle Le Roux, Head of the Eco-Design Project, at L’Occitane en Provence.
According to Marielle Le Roux, the main lessons learned from this experiment are the strong mobilization of the brand’s team, but in the end, only few feedbacks from consumers. "The generalization of this requirement would involve improving the databases and methods that are currently available, but also clarifying the scope of the information to display," she says.
Many technical and practical hurdles still have to be overcome before public authorities can actually consider generalizing the environmental information requirement. However, French and European governments are likely to support the continuation of efforts made towards this direction.
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