Ecolabels help to verify that a product genuinely has a lower environmental and health impact, guiding consumers in their purchasing decisions.

They also give products an extra boost of recognition when it comes to sustainability rating schemes such as Green Star. And now, thanks to recent developments in Europe, it looks like public procurement policy could potentially influence the demand for ecolabelled products in Australia, too.

“Public procurement” refers to the purchasing of any goods and services by government organisations, and in Europe, for example, it constitutes between 15 and 20 per cent of its GDP. Any changes in policy that affect the sourcing of goods and services therefore have a significant impact on suppliers.

This is why it’s interesting to note that the public procurement market in Europe is set to adopt new EU directives that give greater preference to product labels, standards and certifications. These changes were initially adopted in early 2014 and will be phased in over two years, with the new directives transposed into national legislation by early 2016. Ecolabels get a special mention thanks to their credibility in verifying the quality and sustainability attributes of a product.

The International Standards Organisation is also busy developing an ISO standard on sustainable procurement (ISO 20400), with Australia playing an active role in its development. It’s estimated the standard will be released in 2016 and is expected to influence procurement practices in Australia, again giving high importance to certifications and ecolabels.

Both of these initiatives encourage purchasing sustainable materials, making special mention of products with an ecolabel. They also encourage products that may not necessarily have an ecolabel, but meet a lot of similar criteria, thanks to ecolabelled products making up only a limited proportion of the market. Of course, ecolabels offer more credibility and assurance, often with less work on the buyer’s part if they are trying to purchase products meeting specific criteria.

Even within the realm of ecolabelled products, it pays to consider small differences between the different labels themselves. Consider how the scheme is run from a governance, transparency and standards development point of view. For example, how rigorous is the certification process, and is there much separation between the standards organisation and the auditing company? Who owns the scheme – an NGO, industry body, or private organisation? What are the commercial interests at stake?

There are also different types of certifications from a more technical standpoint. Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) provide information about a product’s environmental impact across different categories, with the intention of making supply chains more transparent and encouraging improvement toward a more sustainable product. EPDs can be a challenge for procurement professionals when faced with multiple different products to consider, as there is no clear way of showing whether one product performs better than another from a sustainability perspective.

Certification labels go further than EPDs by demonstrating that a product meets specific criteria and standards, and offers an extra degree of assurance that the product is sustainable. However, it’s important to check exactly what the ecolabel covers to ensure it is robust and comprehensive. For example, does it assess the packaging of a product as well as the product itself? Does it only look at environmental and health concerns, or does it also take into account social responsibility, legal requirements, or even fitness for purpose? Is the product assessed over its entire life cycle, from materials sourcing to disposal?

As public procurement professionals consider buying more sustainable products in the future, we should expect to see increasing discernment when it comes to weighing up sustainability labels and their place in the process. If the trend takes off in Australia, product manufacturers with third-party sustainability certification will find themselves in a very favourable position in years to come.