Kate Harris

Product labelling organisation Good Environmental Choice Australia is coming out of an extensive strategic review period to announce it will steer towards more engagement with the property sector’s procurement and supply chains, and focus more on ethical and environmental issues.

Just two weeks into the role new chief executive Kate Harris attended an environmental footprint conference in Belgium as part of shaping a clear picture of the international context for eco-labelling systems.

She told The Fifth Estate the organisation would look at a more “harmonised and integrated approach” in step with Europe and involving greater collaboration with other eco-labelling organisations.

It is also working on achieving a greater level of collaboration with manufacturers.

This is also part of taking in the social dimension, as the job losses in Australian manufacturing could potentially be mitigated if there were a focus on creating products that meet tough environmental standards and can demonstrate compliance.

Under a Free Trade Agreement scenario, and given recent awareness of issues around non-compliant building products coming in from overseas, Ms Harris said an eco-label could prove an asset not only in Australia but also in markets throughout Asia and in the rapidly growing economies of Brazil and India.

What the organisation has learned about developing standards and creating awareness and engagement is also something that can be shared with those countries.

“It is time for us to share what we have learned and help, including looking at the manufacturing sector and the social situation around jobs,” Ms Harris said.

“How can we strategically place ourselves [as a nation] in relation to the Asian region?

“It’s time for Australia to play its role [as an innovator and leader].”

Ms Harris said the organisation will also be working with distributors and will reach out to consumers more broadly next year, particularly around generating greater understanding of what eco-labels mean.

There is also an aim to make it simpler for manufacturers to make sound ethical and environmental choices, including working with offshore manufacturers in China to drive best practice, she said.

The organisation has survived a difficult period, including “reputational challenges” several years ago. Ms Harris said the last 12 months had seen a turnaround, with the financial bottom line also doing well.

Part of the revival process included the temporary appointment of Orbis Environmental director Anna Scott as director of innovation, and Sungevity’s Ben Waters as director of strategy.

The research Mr Waters and Ms Scott undertook during their contract revolved around how GECA could move beyond being “just a label” to also being about production and consumption.

It also showed that the organisation needed to do more listening and look at questions such as what are market needs, what challenges the eco-labelling concept faces, and where the organisation can best serve.

Ms Harris said her own appointment would focus on building relationships and collaboration, and bringing people together to drive sustainability outcomes.

It will also be about bringing in the health focus, as her background includes nursing.

She thinks COP21 is going to increase the pressure on Australian businesses to consider environmental and ethical dimensions of products and processes.

“I think it will create opportunities for GECA moving forward,” she said. “It will create an international pressure for business in Australia, and will really start to affect our global position.

“This is an opportune time for business to be making tangible commitments or face reputational risk.”

GECA is now working on a new standard for PVC, using current international research into its environmental impacts.

“At the moment, we either need to come up with alternatives [to using PVC] or look at an alternative manufacturing process,” Ms Harris said.

She said GECA was not prepared to lower its standards, and would work with manufacturers to try to foster a shift to less harmful products and processes.

“It’s a question of how do we bring the market with us, not setting up barriers.”

Ms Harris is hoping the organisation will broaden its scope in the near future by starting to engage with sustainability questions around the water and food sectors.

It is also looking to closer alignment and more dialogue with the Infrastructure Sustainability Council of Australia as part of increasing positive influence on supply chains and procurement.

“So much of the economy is thrown at infrastructure and property,” Ms Harris said.

“We are committed to coming from an impact perspective.”

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