Circular guide


Didactic Units 3.4

The importance of product and process environmental certifications: what they are and how they are obtained.

Among the environmental policy instruments that have progressively developed over the years, we cannot fail to mention the voluntary instruments. These can also be defined as “proactive” tools aimed at the promotion of entrepreneurial cultures, which anticipate the evolution of the environmental legislation. This family of measures includes the environmental certifications or the attestation, obtained following verification by a certifying body, of the commitment of an organization in terms of environmental protection.

When it comes to certifications (and the certification process) these should not be confused with the standards (and the standardization procedure). The aim of the latter is in fact, the definition of the requirements to be respected for the purpose of obtaining the certification. At national level, the reference standardization body is represented by UNI (Italian Standardization Body), which is entrusted with the task to elaborate and publish the voluntary regulatory documents (UNI standards, technical specifications, technical reports, and reference practices). In return, the certifications ensure, through a verification carried out by an independent third party, that a product, service or organization complies with the requirements specified in the standard. The credibility of the certifications depends on the qualification (accreditation) of the organizations that issue it. In Italy, the task of ascertaining compliance by the certification bodies with the requirements contained in the ISO / IEC 17065, ISO / IEC 17021-1 and ISO / IEC 17024 standards on accreditation is entrusted to ACCREDIA.

Environmental certifications of product and processe: what they are and what their advantages are 

Certifications, as briefly mentioned above, can have different objects such as products, services, processes. Specifically, environmental certifications can be traced back to two main strands:

  • the certifications relating to organizations, whose object are the management systems, the activities and production processes of the same;
  • the certifications of products.

The system (or process) certifications apply to the activities that are entirely under the management control of the organization subject to certification. On the contrary, the product certifications focus, as easily understood, on the single product, understood as a good, an artifact or service. It is analyzed, for certification purposes, normally according to the cradle to grave approach, thus considering the entire set of activities involving the long product in its own life cycle. The element that unites the two macro-categories of certifications is their voluntary nature.

The decision to adopt appropriate certification systems is certainly based on the possible benefits that it can determine. The EVER study, carried out in 2006 by the Institute of Economics and Politics of Energy and the Environment (IEFE) of Bocconi University, investigated the competitive advantages deriving from the adoption of certification schemes (system and product), mostly employed. Moving on to product certifications, these also highlight possible competitive advantages for those who decide to join them. Companies with product certifications such as the Ecolabel, first of all highlight the benefits related to improving their image and acquiring new market shares.

Another advantage of certifications concerns their role covered (both by product and process) in the Green Public Procurement (GPP), since rappresent a means of proof of compliance with the environmental criteria contained in the tender notices, thus determining substantial advantages for the participating subjects and equipped with such certification tools.

Product certifications: ECOLABEL and environmental product declaration (EPD)

Environmental product certifications have assumed a central role within public policies and corporate strategies. Although the full recognition of their importance is recent, their development precedes the harmonization of the legislator. The International Standard Organization, has published over time some reference standards (ISO 14020) containing the general requirements for the classification of environmental assertions as well as the specific requirements for the individual types. According to the aforementioned family of standards, it is possible to identify three main categories of environmental claims:

Type I

or rather environmental labels which aim to guarantee a minimum framework of information on the basis of which the consumer can choose. The requirements for obtaining these marks are determined by LCA studies and the certification process involves third party verification;il processo di certificazione prevede la verifica da parte terza;

Type II

defined “self-declared environmental claims” which have as their object specific environmental characteristics of the product (for example the percentage of recycled material contained, the compostability)

Type III

or rather the Environmental Product Declarations (EPD)

The first category described by ISO 14020 includes the European Ecolabel, introduced in the 1990s through the Regulation 880/92 / EC and amended by the European Commission through Regulation 66 / 2010. The request for the Ecolabel mark can be made by manufacturers, importers and distributors, by using a specific application sent to the Ecolabel-Eco audit Committee (established in Italy by Ministerial Decree 413/95) which with the technical support of ISPRA, following specific technical investigation concluded positively, gives its assent to the release of the trademark and communicates the decision to the European Commission and to the other Competent Bodies.

Among the product certifications, an important role is also played by the environmental product declaration created to provide environmental information on the performance of products or services. Although its main use is in the B2B (Business to Business) field, it can also be used in communication with public authorities and consumers. Currently the most widely used scheme at community level is the EPD®, regulated by ISO 14025. 

Process certifications: ISO 14001 and the EMAS regulation

As part of the certifications relating to organizations, it is appropriate to focus on the ISO 14001 and EMAS certifications, which today represent the main eco-management systems on the market. The EMAS regulation (Environmental Management and Audit Scheme) introduced by reg. 1836/93 and recently amended (by reg. 1505/2017 and reg. 2026/2018) represents the certification scheme through the which the EU introduces, within the scope of its environmental policy, a voluntary tool aimed at improving the environmental performance of companies. The latter deciding to participate in the scheme undertake, following an internal eco audit procedure, to draw up an environmental declaration describing the environmental objectives achieved and what are the planned interventions for the best continuous increase of the environmental performance of its operations. The registration of an organization is carried out by the Ecolabel Committee – Eco audit, with the technical support of ISPRA and the regional ARPAs, assisted by an accredited registration body for the preparation of the environmental declaration and support for the structuring of an environmental management system (SGA).

Simultaneously with the formation of the EMAS scheme, the aforementioned UN EN ISO 14001 standard has progressively established itself internationally, which after an initial phase antagonistic to European certification, has undergone a gradual process of integration. The ISO standard also represents a voluntary tool applicable to all types of companies, which contains the requirements for the implementation of EMS. In this case, the certification is issued by an independent accredited body that verifies the concrete commitment to minimize the environmental impact of processes, products and services, certifying the reliability of the EMS applied with the ISO 14001 mark.

Although characterized by similar processes, purposes and requirements, EMAS and ISO 14001 certifications present some substantial differences. In particular, among the additional elements required by the EMAS regulation are:

preparation of an initial environmental analysis to identify and evaluate the environmental aspects and the applicable regulatory obligations in the field of the environment;

compliance with regulatory obligations, demonstrating that the attention is paid to the environmental legislation, including authorizations and related limits;

participation of personnel involved in the process, aimed at the continuous improvement of the environmental performance of the organization;

communication with the public and other interested parties, through the publication of the Environmental Declaration.

Despite these differences, the two systems maintain a certain complementarity since for example, being already equipped with a management system recognized by the regulation, a company certified according to ISO 14001 is favored in the transition to EMAS.

Certifications in the circular economy: the degree of circularity according to the BS8001: 2017 standard

The transition to the circular economy certainly represents a great challenge but, as argued by many parties, it also represents a great opportunity. Also in this field, in order to support the circular transition, the fundamental role of certifications and standards is widely recognized. A reference standard for the circular economy is represented by BS 8001: 2017 , which provides support to organizations in adopting more sustainable and circular operating methods. According to the aforementioned standard, Circularity has elaborated the Degree of Circularity. Specifically, this certification allows to have an indicator that allows the company to identify the sectors to improve, a corporate communication more centered on the theme and the possibility of communicating the results obtained to its stakeholders.
The degree of circularity is calculated by completing a specific questionnaire, if you want to find out how circular your company is, try to answer.

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