Thursday, 31 October 2013
The voluntary labels are designed to attract consumers who might want to save money on water or help the environment.
The European Commission has been issuing these ecolabel criteria for various products such as television sets and textiles since 1992. 17,000 products have been given criteria for the ecolabel so far. But this time, the criteria are for a product that makes people giggle. So as soon as it was picked up as a news story, you could see the reaction coming a mile away.
Silly topic + EU angle = UK headlines.
And headlines there were. On Tuesday The Telegraph ran an article saying the EU is planning to “standardise the flush on lavatories”, introducing a “euro-flush” that will be imposed after an exhaustive study of European toilet habits.
"We used to laugh at their stupid ideas such as discriminating against curvy cucumbers, but it really isn't funny that they continue to come up with hare-brained schemes,” UKIP deputy leader Paul Nuttall told his local paper. Non-aligned Northern Ireland MEP Diane Dods put out a statement that this “latest diktat” needs to be “flushed out of the system" because "the credibility of the EU is going down the toilet".
The Twittersphere has been lit up with incandescent fury over this revelation. “How in the world can the EU decide standardising the water in a toilet flush is a priority?” asked local Conservative town councillor Chris Steward. “Claims the EU is tackling overregulation go down the pan as Brussels seeks to standardise toilet flushes” tweeted the Business for Britain campaign group.
Since then the story has spread to the BBC, and the outrage has morphed into focusing on the cost of the study. At £76,000, the study cost about the same as the studies for most of the other product criteria over the past two decades.
So, the idea of the EU regulating toilets is mildly amusing, I suppose. But why is it a scandal?
British politicians are pointing at this as an outrage. But if you press them on it, it's hard to understand their outrage. The UK approved this ecolabel scheme two decades ago. The purpose of the certification, and the studies to determine the criteria for that certification, is to give consumers a guarantee that the environmental or money-saving claims the product is making are true.
In order to set the criteria at the right level, a study has to be carried out. And these studies cost around £76K. This is a common market (something the UK is supposedly a champion of), so the labels need to be standardised at EU level. If every country came up with their own ecolabels with separate criteria, it would be a mess. Not to mention the fact that in that case each country would have to carry out a separate £76 study.
I asked Callanan's spokesperson whether the Conservatives' objection is to the ecolabel programme as a whole, or to ecolabels for toilets in particular. He said the objection was specific to “micromanagement when it comes to plumbing” and not to the eco-label programme as a whole. “There are more important things for the EU to be worried about than the capacity of toilet flushes.”
It's a bit difficult for me to wrap my head around this one. This particular ecolabel is bad because...it involves the bathroom? But ecolabels for televisions are good because...they're in the living room? Or are they saying all ecolabel criteria should be done at national level, requiring companies to apply for 28 different labels in the EU single market?
An average household could save an estimated 6,600 litres of water per year. No one is being made to have a toilet with less water, they're simply being given a government guarantee that a toilet which claims to save water really does. Am I to understand that we should insist on using as much water as possible in our toilets in the name of freedom from EU tyranny?
Nor can I understand British MEPs calling this a ‘diktat from Brussels'. All national governments agreed to create this scheme. Each set of criteria is designed with member state input. And this is only a proposal for criteria. Member states still have to approve it, and that includes the UK government.
Lest you think the temptation for cheap shots at any subject toilet-related is a Europe-wide phenomenon, I would invite you to look at the German coverage of this issue. Sure, it's only being covered at all because it's a quirky topic. But I doubt you would see German media or politicians saying this is an outrage simply because it involves toilets.