JUST GOOD BUSINESS PROFILE: Environmental Europlan – Credible and Commercial

An indication of the scarily confusing scale of environmental labelling can be found in an eco-label directory on the Ministry of Development’s website – only the “x” and “y” spots in the alphabetical listing have no entries; “g” (think ‘green’) gets over 40. There’s lot of them.
So just where does the Ministry for the Environment-sponsored “Environmental Choice” label sit – especially in the light of funding cuts that have hit some sustainability programmes? Is it worth having?
Well, if you want to win tenders from either Government agencies or many of the larger corporations, the answer to the latter is “yes”. Sustainability is spreading down supply chains and the points accorded to what’s known as “type 1 eco-label” can tip the balance in your product’s favour, says Paul van Dorsten, managing director of furniture company Europlan.
“I know we’ve won couple of large contracts, not just on design but on our ability to cite environmental choice because under the new green star building fit-out, that represents points in our favour.”
The company was already working on its own sustainability programme but needed some certification that showed it was doing this to an approved standard, says van Dorsten.
“That’s why we went the environmental choice way – it’s got worldwide reputation, it’s recognised by big buyers like government agencies and large corporations so it has that marketplace credibility.”
The EC label is for its Verde Tambour storage system which is both space efficient and fully recyclable. “We are probably leaders in the market for providing that kind of storage, and recognised that if we are to retain our place in the market, we had to be first cab off the rank with an approved environmental standard,” van Dorsten says.
Europlan is one of four local makers of environmentally preferable furniture that have been issued licences by Environmental Choice New Zealand – on top of another three companies (Southern Pine Products, Nelson Pine and The Laminex Group) which had earlier achieved the furniture/furnishing standard. As many again are currently in process.
That is typical of the pattern of engagement within industry sectors where early licensees set benchmark for others to follow until the sector as whole reaches sort of tipping point. It helps explain why the EC label is on rapidly rising growth path.
“The interest is ramping up – we have as many now waiting for licences as we’ve already licensed,” says Robin Taylor, general manager of Environmental Choice NZ. “I think any commercial advantage you can get these days, you really have to go for it and there is demand from more and more procurement people for independently assessed environmental statements.
The combined turnover of companies with certified products in New Zealand is now well over $1 billion annually and there are 38 which currently have applications being processed. That’s being driven by market demand which has never been stronger, says Taylor. Internationally, there are now over 150,000 products and services certified with ecolabels recognised by the Global Ecolabelling Network (GEN).
“Certified green is now mainstream.”
Taylor is in good position to know – last month he took up his new role as chair of GEN having previously represented the international organisation in missions to promote ecolabelling to intergovernmental offices in the EU.
“We now have 28 international members but one of those is the EU – so in fact we have about 54. The only places where we’re not active as group are in Africa, India and some parts of South America.”
That the New Zealand label was cited in Europe last year for “best global practice” – particularly for standards used in furniture and paper specifications – has added to its status, says Taylor.
“Furniture makers know that passing our assessment process allows them to claim they have achieved top global standard in environmental preferability. It’s good for local consumers looking for an easy and sure way of judging sustainable furniture and could also be helpful for licensed manufacturers looking to export.”
That is certainly the case with Europlan, says van Dorsten. Its Verde Tambour range goes into Australia and having gained the EC standard, is now able to achieve the Australian equivalent giving it an edge in that market as well.
The growth of eco-labelling is increasingly top-down process with more governments requiring certification in procurement practices.
“Internationally, there’s no question that is the case,” says Taylor. “In Taiwan, for instance, if you want to bid for government contract, you have to have an eco-label – and I believe you can demand price premium.”
As to which eco-labels hit the right spot, “type one” (as defined by ISO) are premium. This means the label is full life-cycle impacts based, independent third party audited, awarded using multiple public criteria, and meets the ISO 14-024 standards for criteria setting and auditing. While several labels reaching this standard can be found in New Zealand, including the Blue Angel (Germany), Nordic Swan (Scandinavia), EcoMark (Japan), Green Seal (USA) and Good Environmental Choice Australia, Environmental Choice is the only home-grown type one.
The familiar planet-and-tick symbol isn’t awarded lightly – applicants need rigorous quality control, painstaking record keeping through the manufacturing processes and the published standards take account of environmental impacts throughout the life-cycle of the product. Third-party assessors come highly qualified, regular reassessment is part of the package and certification has five-year use-by date.
While the audit is rigorous, it isn’t an arduous process, says Europlan’s van Dorsten, though it does include some upstream checking.
“It’s not just looking at your own company but those of your suppliers as well and the processes they’re undertaking so it did take while – about three months.”
Furniture isn’t the only sector where certification has started to reach critical mass. Paint is another where the move was led by Resene in 1996 with all major companies now either licensed or with products in process. The same applies to floor coverings and number of other building industry products are following on.
Taylor makes the point that certification is dynamic rather than static standard. As the top companies lift their game and others follow on, it creates pressure for ongoing improvement.
“At any point in time, our spec will cover the top 25 percent and once it gets to bit more than that then people start upping the game – so you’re driving environmental improvements all the time and that is market-based process.”
Often it is the innovative licence holder that drives the raising of specification and then other sector licence holders are given 12 months to progress their processes to meet the higher published standard.
As to the future of the Environmental Choice label, recent concerns that it might fall victim to Government cost cutting prompted the chair of the New Zealand Eco-labelling Trust, Michael Pritchard, to say its future is assured.
“Initiated and owned by the Ministry for the Environment since its inception in 1990, the planet-and-tick symbol is the country’s strongest and oldest established ecolabel.”
Both the Government and MfE remain committed to supporting the label which is now pivotal to the marketing of wide range of products, says Taylor.
He says the programme is essentially self-sufficient with sound business model that allows for variations in its funding mix. “It is principally the ongoing solid support from licensees that covers expenses and helps fund the development of new specs or the updating of existing ones.”
It is, he says, sign of confidence in the label that there’s been no drop-off in the high level of application enquiries and licence renewals.
“The support of New Zealand’s leading manufacturers reflects their genuine environmental endeavours. Achieving th

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