A year of social responsibility: Baltic salmon return, but eco-labelled goods remain elusive

2002 was the battleground for disputes over the impending EU chemical policy – will it be too harsh or not stringent enough? A summer debate oscillated on corporate social responsibility, with MEPs arguing for mandatory reporting but the Commission favouring voluntary practices. Baltic Sea ecology flourished from clean-up programmes, but eco-labelled goods continued to elude consumers in search of greener products.

The year kicked off with two directives to regulate the €800 billion spent by public authorities across the EU and encourage more spending on green products (see related story).

More positive news in February from the detergent industry, with a 46% rise in the number of companies committed to good environmental practices such as reducing packaging and increasing biodegradability (see related story). But elsewhere, a UN report found that fifteen years on from the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, the area was still suffering economically. The report recommended eco-tourism as a potential source of revenue to boost the region (see related story). Meanwhile, the European Commission adopted a proposal to restrict the use of carcinogenic azo dyes (see related story).

March delivered a German report proposing charging for the use of global resources such as the sky and the oceans, to minimise resource use and cut climate change (see related story). Global warming also prompted German insurance groups to increase their premiums (see related story). The European Parliament’s industry committee rejected Green MEP Caroline Lucas’s proposal to force companies to report on their corporate social responsibility (CSR), arguing that such reporting should be on a voluntary basis (see related story). Lucas replied that MEPs were mistaken in the belief that they were protecting the interests of business. “Many companies see the writing on the wall and see that corporate social responsibility is an issue – and are already starting to respond,” she said.

The debate continued through April, with the Parliament’s employment committee also calling for tighter rules on environmental reporting by companies, including independent verification of reports (see related story).

May saw an international car hire firm offering a carbon neutral hire package to its customers, with the aim of offsetting 32,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (see related story).

Summer began with the Swedish Baltic Sea Water Award going to a

Lithuanian housing association for reducing the country’s organic pollution to the Baltic Sea (see related story). Sweden continued to defy EU regulations on brominated flame retardants with a request to its own chemical inspectorate, KemI, to establish whether an overall ban on the substances could be imposed in Sweden (see related story). June also received the welcome news that Europe’s chemical industry was curbing its pollution, with phosphorous emissions to water and sulphur dioxide emissions to air both down by more than 50% since 1996, according to industry figures (see related story).

In July the UK Chemical Industries Association (CIA) renewed calls for the global chemical industry to practice CSR (see related story), while the

European Commission set guidelines for businesses to self-regulate on environmental issues (see related story), but reiterated that CSR should remain voluntary (see related story).

A report released in August warned that France’s environment was under great pressure from increased traffic and energy consumption, and was “highly vulnerable” to natural and technological disasters (see related story).

September saw the EU’s eco-labelling criteria revised for mattresses, paint and paper (see related story), while an EU ruling granted Finnish local authorities the right to include environmental specifications when tendering contracts for bus operators (see related story). Switzerland launched energy labelling for Swiss cars, which from 2003 will sport the colour-coded A to G labels commonly seen on electrical appliances (see related story).

European business prizes were awarded for beer boiling and greener traffic lights in October (see related story), while the Norwegian Government proposed a new Act granting its citizens the right to obtain environmental information from public authorities and companies (see related story).

In November, a group of charities sent a letter to US president George W Bush protesting against the US government’s attempts to undermine the proposed EU Chemicals Policy. But a chemical lobby group warned that the new policy would require 13 million laboratory animals to be used in toxicity tests, and could put small firms out of business (see related story). Meanwhile solar energy prizes were handed out across Europe (see related story), and corporate sustainable reports became bigger, though not better (see related story). A European lobby group warned that the European Parliament was overestimating the reliability of life cycle assessment as a measure of environmental impact (see related story).

December showed that consumers couldn’t find eco-labelled products easily, because information on where to find such products was inaccessible, while eco-labels were mostly applied to rarely bought goods (see related story). Accession countries were warned that they were building unsustainable transport (see related story), and the Danish presidency received a mixture of praise and criticism for its leadership of the EU Council over the past year (see related story).

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