Government attempts to set up a green labelling system to guide consumers and businesses to ecofriendly products were scuppered this week with the announcement that the national environmental agency Indalo Yethu would be dissolved.
Launched in 2006 by then-environment minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Indalo Yethu’s main aims were to raise environmental awareness and set up an eco-endorsement system. Its operational costs so far total R36.5-million.
In recent years the environment department assigned the agency other projects, which have been given six months to be wrapped up. These include the R390-million Ecotowns programme, which has created more than 3200 jobs around South Africa.
One of the government officials involved in setting up Indalo Yethu, who did not want to be named, said it was the leading legacy project of the World Summit on Sustainable Development hosted in Johannesburg in 2002. Its original budget was R20-million and more than two years of research into ecolabelling had preceded its launch.
“It is short-sighted to close such an initiative down when, around the world, there is an emphasis on the green economy. The visionary thing to do would have been to give it a new agenda and focus,” he said.
Another insider said the move followed a recent pattern in the department of closing down costly environmental initiatives that took years to set up. Last year Buyisa-e-Bag, a R65-million recycling initiative funded by plastic bag levies, was also wound down.
“It’s a pity to lose all the research, consultations with provinces, branding, etcetera, that went into Indalo Yethu’s eco-endorsement campaign. It seems when new people come into the department, they have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
Indalo Yethu’s original aim was to counter “green wash” marketing campaigns with a credible eco-standard similar to the Fairtrade label. Because it had to be independent, a trust was set up and the funds were administered by an environmental non-governmental organisation, the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (Wessa).
Mike Ward, the NGO’s chief financial officer, said although almost R4-million “went in and out” of the society’s account, it had nothing to do with the management of Indalo Yethu.
“Wessa had a mandate to set up a national ecostandard in South Africa and Indalo Yethu was specifically established for that purpose,” Ward said. “Ironically, this was one of the things it didn’t do. It was a missed opportunity.”
Environment department spokesperson Albi Modise said the trust was supposed to generate sufficient income through eco-endorsements to fund its own operations. A recent review, however, had shown that this was not possible.
“As it was never the intention of the department to fund the operations of Indalo Yethu in perpetuity, it was decided to discuss the dissolution of the trust with its trustees. If the dissolution is not agreed to, the department will nevertheless formally withdraw its funding from the trust, following the withdrawal of Wessa,” Modise said.
Hlobsile Manana, Indalo Yethu’s communications manager, said “the underlying processes needed to establish a robust, credible and nationally relevant scheme” had proved challenging.
“Before a product or service is endorsed, standard criteria have to be developed. Conformity tests must be performed to ascertain compliance. All these processes invariably take time, notwithstanding inherent capacity challenges. Standard development is a frustratingly long and winding process,” she said.
Although “traction has been lower than expected”, ecostandards had been established for cleaning detergents, responsible tourism, a private recycling initiative and Indalo Yethu was collaborating with the public works department on the development of ecocriteria for the built environment.
Manana said the Ecotowns programme, launched in 2010 in collaboration with the expanded public works department to focus on building green skills and jobs in 10 rural and peri-urban sites, was not meant to last more than two years. A few municipalities had agreed to take on some of the 3200 beneficiaries contracted for the pilot project.
The environment department would take over the other Indalo Yethu programmes – women in the environment, establishing energy auditor training, schools awareness and ecoclubs. Two once-off projects, the Cop17 climate train and Make Mzantsi Beautiful anti-litter campaign, had been successfully completed, she said.