Business Advice

Nordic Swan: the highest eco certification?

by FESPA | 10/07/2020
Nordic Swan: the highest eco certification?

The Scandinavian eco label enjoys worldwide kudos for its high standards. What makes the Nordic Swan logo the trailblazer?  

One certificate that enjoys particular confidence among both the public and manufacturers in Nordic countries is the Nordic Swan Ecolabel – sibling to the wider-used EU Ecolabel ‘Flower’ – which works to reduce the overall environmental impact of both production and consumption. Part of the reason for its success is down to the label’s independent structure, which is part-funded by the Nordic governments. But perhaps even more important than that, the sector-specific standards required to achieve the label are key to the high levels of confidence it instils.

Most certified printing houses are situated in the Nordic countries, but companies in the Baltic states, Poland and Germany have also been certified, and the certification is available to companies in all countries. In textiles, for example, most licensees are situated outside Europe. Estonia's Ecoprint, a wide format and digital printer, uses printing inks based on natural resins and oils as well as recycled or certified printing paper and energy efficient technologies, and has been certified since 2010.
Per Kaae Hansen, Senior Advisor at Grakom in Denmark, says Nordic Swan does something of “unique relevance”: “It adds market value to the company – it’s not just a case of ‘we’ve been certified’ on this product – the whole company has been certified. This way it can market itself better.”
“To ensure that we get the maximum reduction in environmental impact we set product-specific requirements,” says Lisbeth Engel Hansen, Criteria Manager at Ecolabelling Denmark, which runs the Danish part of the Nordic Swan Ecolabel.
Lisbeth Engel Hansen, Nordic Swan

“We look at the environmental impact across the whole lifecycle, from raw materials, usage and waste, to reuse and recycling. We set our requirements in areas with the biggest potential for obtaining environmental improvement and focus there. This means that we don’t necessarily have requirements in the same lifecycle stages for all types of products. So for printing companies, we have a lot of focus on paper and other types of substrate and the way that they are produced, as well as on the printing process and recyclability.
“When it comes to textiles, it is not possible to use the Nordic Swan Ecolabel on a product just because it is printed in a certified printing company. Instead, the textile product itself must fulfil the requirements for the Nordic Swan Ecolabel for textiles, hides and leather. This set of criteria also has requirements covering the whole lifecycle: fibre production, dyeing, finishing/mounting, quality and also printing.

"We certify the whole company and then there are additional requirements for specific products that have the logo. Thus, the system is based on a general certification where Ecolabelling Denmark approves the chemicals, substrates, etc. used in the printing house and afterwards get yearly reports on the fulfilment of the criteria.”
How many firms in Scandinavia actually manage to succeed getting certification? “The rules established by the Nordic Council of ministers stipulate that maximally a third of the products on the market shall be able to fulfil the criteria at the time of adoption of the criteria,” says Lisbeth. “After a period, the percentage can be higher, because it is possible for companies to change their products and processes in order to obtain the label. We revise the criteria regularly to strengthen them based on the development in the market.”

Being the best

For successful certificated licensees, the depth of detail in the Nordic Swan Ecolabel’s sector-specific requirements is matched by equally high expectations. As Lisbeth admits, while certification is designed to be adopted by anyone, the goal is that only the best should be able to achieve it.
“The product requirements are collected in a criteria document and if a printing company wants to use the Nordic Swan Ecolabel on its products, it has to document that it has met all those requirements. The same is the case for each textile product. Then my colleagues look into it and if we find that everything is documented and it meets the requirements, then the company can use the label,” Lisbeth says.
“We tighten and review these requirements regularly – every four to five years depending on the sector – because the markets for these products are always developing. So when you get certification, it is time limited and when we revise the criteria, companies have to reapply to use the label. That’s an important way to ensure that it follows sustainable development. Companies have to stay on their toes and when we introduce new criteria, they have a minimum of a year to document that they fulfil it.”
Kitemark for Nordic Swan certification

That last point – constantly updating and improving standards – is actually a less recognised benefit of adhering to a certification scheme: as a business, you should always be ahead of the minimum local or national requirements.
“The great benefit for printers is that, because the requirements are ahead of legislation, when new legislation is introduced, it should not take them by surprise,” Lisbeth says. “We have a lot of interactions with governments, so we know what is on its way – maybe not specifically, but certainly the general focus – so any company that has achieved the Nordic Swan Ecolabel shouldn’t be worried about new environmental rules that might be coming.”

Changes ahead

But is Nordic Swan fit for a wide format world? Per says: “Printers are printing on many more alternative substrates now than on paper. And that is what Nordic Swan are trying to handle. This problem arises because Nordic Swan looks at the whole company. Printing on paper is getting smaller and smaller but use of other substrates is rising.”
A ban on PVC in substrates, except for a trivial limit of 10%, is proposed for the new criteria. Per says: “Most printing companies have informed us that a max threshold on 10% for PVC is not realistic. The point is that the alternatives to PVC with the same quality performances have only limited availability in the market at the moment. Furthermore, large format products are produced in a competitive international market, and also in countries where the Swan label isn’t an issue. A strict threshold for PVC might just move the production of PVC-containing products to other countries, which won’t change anything for the environment.”
Lisbeth says: “Wide format and signage are undergoing assessments to be included in the scope of Nordic Swan’s certification. In short, there are demands for both the printing company, the application of substrates, energy and chemicals as well as emission to air and waste management. This process is currently in public consultation, and once this has been finalised we will look into the comments and some demands may be changed to reflect them. The final decision will be taken by the Nordic Ecolabelling Board, so until the process has been concluded and decisions accepted by the Board, changes from the proposal can still be introduced.”

  • Due to the coronavirus, Nordic Ecolabelling prolonged the deadline for this consultation period to 30 June 2020. Ecolabel authorities are working on the comments and they will present the final version or a new draft, probably in 2021.


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