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A Level Playing Field

Consumers in southern Africa have finally created the need for recognition of products and services which are kinder to the planet - and to consumers themselves. There has been an awakening in the manufacturing sector of the need to position environmentally responsible products against competitors using ecolabelling and certification

, and we are pleased to see the trend develop.

However, the playing field in ecolabelling and certification in South Africa can hardly be regarded as competitive or fair, and manufacturers and competing labels risk alienating the very people that this has been created to serve - the consumer. Competing labels range from in-house claims and artwork, to second and third-party labels that offer a degree of authenticity to manufacturers claims.

But above the risk that self-certification adds to the mix through greenwashing, consumers are being faced with some labels that simply don't play fair. One of the most important aspects of labeling is ensuring that the products or services meet the expected standard of local consumers, yet labels that have been accepted in other countries are simply being foisted upon the unsuspecting local consumer without any attempt to homologate to local conditions. Would you buy a product that doesn't address local challenges - from healthcare to personal safety, just because the users have decided to circumvent local testing and standards? Well, that is what is happening every day in South Africa, and labels that have made an effort to address these issues are being drowned-out in noncompetitive and restrictive trade practices.

In this country, there is a label that has the protection of a relatively strong certification brand in the built environment, and this protection includes bad-mouthing and undermining other labels that don't perhaps have the same resources or status carried by association. What makes it even worse is that the organisation that controls the label in question has set the bar for recognition of others so high, that only the wealthy can even consider trying to compete. Standards that are set fail to consider local conditions; the financial ability of product developers; and even require membership of a global body for recognition, while the label in question does not even meet this same standard!

There is only one global organisation for the recognition and credibility of ecolabels, and local attempts to undermine or replace this with self-created commercial interests is not in the interests of South Africa as a manufacturing country. We respect the fact that this label is recognised in many countries, but it is not a South African standard against which the products that have been labelled are measured. Local 'uber-labels' are simply not in our interests and this protectionist approach needs to be halted before all manufacturers and consumers loose faith in the value of internationally competitive - locally relevant standards of sustainability.

Let's all get together and acknowledge the need for a common, transparent and equitable set of rules if we want to create a trustworthy and useful consumer tool. By creating artificial barriers to exclude others through a position of unjustified strength, greenwashing will simply continue in this region to the detriment of committed and capable manufacturers and consumers alike, and continued global doubt around the eco-qualifications of products that are being developed and manufactured in South Africa.

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