1.1 General setting

Integrated Product Policy

There is a hidden story behind every product, a story of which consumers are rarely aware. Sometimes dramatic, frequently sophisticated and always very interesting for those who investigate them, these stories recount the life-cycles of products and the related environmental impacts. Policy makers in many coun­tries have made efforts to reveal these accounts to the general public, the most comprehensive initiative so far being the Integrated Product Policy (IPP) of the European Union (EU).l The IPP is an example of a product-oriented environ­mental policy – it attempts to reduce the pressure that our society exerts on the environment through targeting products. This approach is innovative in at least three ways:

  1. it addresses the environmental impacts arising during the whole life-cycle of products, thus engaging all stakeholders who contribute to those impacts;
  2. it favours solving the problems as early in the life-cycle as possible, thus avoiding pollution, rather than managing it after it has arisen; and
  3. it addresses those impacts in an integrated way, thus reducing the risk of shifting problems between different media (such as air, water and soil).

The IPP and other product-oriented environmental policies complement traditional environmental policy. They indicate the complexity of economy­ – environment interactions, using the environmental impacts of products as an example. In consequence, they underline the need to adopt an integrated, systems perspective to studying environmental impacts in all environmental policy. The IPP’s impact on economy-environment interactions is particularly significant because it extends to the common market of the EU and has the potential to directly influence products originating from allover the world.

Concerted efforts of policy makers, companies, academics, environmental NGOs, consumers and other stakeholders, undertaken since the 1970s, have led to considerable improvements in relative environmental pressures associated with particular processes or products (such as resource consumption per unit of produc­tion). However, at the same time, the levels of production and consumption have been constantly increasing, in many cases neutralizing the positive relative effects. Such a situation, when increased environmental efficiency of production brings about increased consumption eventually leading to increased environ­mental pressure, has been referred to as the ‘rebound effect’ (see, for example, Greening et at. 2000). As a result, a rising number of authors have started to call for the decoupling of economic growth and its environmental consequences (for example, Simonis 1989; Binswanger 1993; Azar et at. 2002) and this has become one of the central issues in ecological economics and industrial ecology. However, it has yet to be addressed in the IPP.

Although progressive and potentially very influential, the IPP seems not to have been conceptually well founded. This can be confirmed by the literature overview, which indicates that, up till now, authors referring to the IPP, and to product-oriented environmental policies in general, have tended to focus on practical rather than theoretical issues. The IPP might benefit if it were more conceptually grounded and probably, because of its relevance to sustainable development and economy-environment interactions in particular, such a theo­retical grounding might be sought within the areas of ecological economics and industrial ecology.

These two areas offer a holistic perspective on economy-environment inter­actions, and they have a reputation of laying scientific foundations for the concept of sustainable development. As such, they can be used to make more specific the traditional definition of sustainable development (according to which it ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’ (WCED 1987: 43)). An alternative definition, based on the analogy between the sustainability of ecological and social systems, would evoke ‘flourishing, resilience, integrity, adaptive capacity, or other similar concepts – all of which happen to be emergent properties of living complex systems’ (Ehrenfeld 2004a: 3).

Furthermore, the IPP (as presented in European Commission 2003a) links to the issues commonly raised within both ecological economics and industrial ecology, such as taking an integrated approach to policy making, working with the market and life-cycle thinking. In particular, the latter has been traditionally associated with industrial ecology.
In this book, I attempt to discuss two principal issues – that of the relation­ship between ecological economics and industrial ecology and that of their potential implications for the IPP. Neither of these issues has as yet received suf­ficient attention in the literature. The current chapter introduces the book’s central ideas, objectives, approach and structure. In addition, it offers a note on metaphors, which play an important role in both ecological economics and industrial ecology, and indeed, also in the IPP.