TRADE TALK - ROSALIND MCLYMONT US WEIGHS RESPONSE TO EC REQUEST FOR INPUT ON "ECO-LABEL' PROGRAM

TRADE TALK - ROSALIND MCLYMONT US WEIGHS RESPONSE TO EC REQUEST FOR INPUT ON "ECO-LABEL' PROGRAM

Last Wednesday, representatives from the U.S. State, Commerce and Agriculture departments, as well as from the U.S. Trade Representative's Office, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration huddled in Washington to decide how to respond to a European Community offer they can't afford to refuse.

The offer stemmed from the EC's "eco-label" program, launched four months ago to identify products that are significantly less damaging to the environment than competing products.The criteria for identifying these less-damaging products, the EC said, are to be developed through "life-cycle analysis" that judges the environmental impact of a product from cradle to grave - i.e., from pre-production through production, distribution, usage and disposal.

Since the eco-label scheme will affect goods exported to the EC, community officials have encouraged the United States to make specific proposals for treatment of foreign applicants, and for specific criteria.

COMPANIES CAN PLAY AN IMPORTANT ROLE

Private companies were not invited to Wednesday's meeting.

They had their chance the previous week to tell the government what problems they face in getting their products into the EC, and to say how they would like the government to act.

That session was sponsored by the Commerce Department and it was at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Officials must now decide whether their response to the EC offer would take the form of a single U.S. government proposal or individual agency proposals since each agency has unique concerns, or whether it was better to respond through U.S. multinationals already established in the EC, and whose collective voice carries substantial weight in Brussels.

Wednesday's meeting was a first step in that process.

"It is a very long process trying to get the government together to find out what the heck they are going to do," said one participant.

STRICT CRITERIA

The EC eco-label, said Kirsten Bergstrom in an article for Commerce's Europe Now report, is a voluntary mark awarded to producers who can show that their product is less harmful to the environment than similar products. The criteria will be strict enough to assure that only the less-damaging 10 percent to 20 percent of products carry the mark.

Products that do not carry the eco-label will be able to enter the EC as long as they meet mandatory health, safety and environmental standards laid out in other legislation.

The EC eco-label will replace current national labels. A target date has not been set for the replacement. Those who want to use the current national labels must apply separately for each's country version through the country's ''competent body."

An eco-label applied in one EC member state is recognized throughout the community.

FROM CLEANERS TO CAT LITTER

Denmark, Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain are the lead countries in developing proposals for EC eco-labeling criteria. Interest groups - such as unions and private companies - can give their input on consultation forms attached to proposed criteria.

Each of the lead countries is assessing criteria for specific product groups.

Denmark is tackling paper products, building insulation and textiles; Germany is handling detergents, dishwashing agents and household cleaning agents; France, paints and varnishes, batteries and accumulators and shampoos; Italy, packaging, refrigerators and freezers, ceramic tiles; the Netherlands, shoes and cat litter; Britain, washing machines, dishwashers, light bulbs, hair-care products, deodorants and fertilizers.

The eco-label directive won't come out until after the EC packaging directive, which isn't expected until next July. The EC Council of Ministers is scheduled to come up with a packaging proposal at a meeting slated for Dec. 2.

U.S. officials hope the final packaging directive will come out before Germany assumes the EC presidency at the end of July, to keep Bonn from pushing its own controversial packaging laws into the EC-wide system.

Those who export to the EC should stay in touch with the Commerce Department's Office of European Community Affairs, (202) 482-5276.