Making good on Canada’s Sustainable Development Commitments
Canada may be known as a steward of the environment in some respects, but its performance on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) Index is inconsistent. Canada currently ranks 11th out of 34 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. Its performance is particularly weak on greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide emissions from energy production, energy use, and domestic material consumption. It will take concerted effort and significant breakthroughs to meet our commitments in these areas.
Could Canadian consumers help make product supply chains greener and more sustainable? The Canada Beyond 150 team on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals thinks new technologies could help through the power of ecolabelling.
Trustworthy ecolabels driven by data
The team proposed breathing new life into Canada’s ecolabelling system. Instead of an on/off labelling scheme, where a product either features a seal or it doesn’t, consumer products would be assigned grades. The grades would be based on data pulled from key points in the production cycle, including material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, consumer use, and disposal.
New and emerging technologies would support the label development process. Sensors and the Internet of Things could collect data more cheaply and easily than ever across the entire product development and supply chain. The data could be transmitted and tracked using blockchain technologies. Machine learning algorithms could help interpret the data and generate grades that can change over time.
The system would communicate information to buyers in a simple, user-friendly way, such as points awarded to products for meeting recyclability or packaging criteria, that allow buyers to compare them. Even the stakeholders at our Canada Beyond 150 event found that it was currently difficult to make informed choices based on the claims made on labels for packaged food and household products. Better grades could allow consumers to drive producers toward continuous improvements throughout their supply chains.
Green-conscious consumers could make informed purchasing decisions based on real data and criteria. Businesses could look into their own production processes, and adjust to improve their product-rating scores. Program authorities could develop clear and objectively measured product criteria that bring Canada closer to meeting its SDG commitments.
Old design, new approach
The federal government is uniquely positioned to lead in this domain. It can convene and collaborate with provinces and territories, as well as academics, industry, citizens, and international trade partners and organizations. A federally led program offers the advantage of a single, consistent approach across Canada. It could anticipate and resolve challenges relating to implementation, transparency and the protection of participants’ intellectual property rights. On the other hand, initiatives led by various sub-national governments could create a patchwork system of standards, interprovincial trade barriers, and higher costs for business.
Green lighting the green label
Building a comprehensive system for ecolabelling won’t come easy, and will face logistical, administrative, technological, and economic challenges. Still, the appetite for more sustainably and efficiently produced goods is greater than ever. The supporting technologies are going mainstream, and the federal government has the means to develop a national program that allows Canadians and businesses to support more sustainable goods and services.
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