There is no alternative. If the world has to become anything else than a gigantic dustbin, it will have to transition to bio-based products. This means phasing out fossil-based products in favour of plant and waste-derived materials, building biorefineries using renewable resources to replace their polluting counterparts, and transitioning to an economy focused on circularity.
The number of challenges ahead would make anyone’s head spin, but projects like the EU-funded STAR-ProBio project have been tackling them head-on. “Our project focused on sustainability assessment schemes (labels, standards and certifications) as well as uncertainties related to market uptake,” says Piergiuseppe Morone, professor of Economic Policy at the University of Rome Unitelma Sapienza and coordinator of the project.
For the former, the project team identified a set of environmental, social and economic indicators covering land use change and transition from linear to circular production models. For the latter, they investigated drivers that could push both consumers and producers to warmly welcome bio-based products, including those aspects specifically related to sustainability schemes. As Morone explains: “We conducted a three-round survey with a large panel of consumers and professionals. It helped us find out how they think and how this thinking influences buying decisions. Additionally, we conducted an experiment involving 360 consumers in a branch of a multinational company selling furniture, furnishings and household articles in Italy.”
A pathway to consumer acceptance
The results of this experiment are quite enlightening. They show the existence of a ‘green premium’ – that is, increased consumer willingness to pay for bio-based over conventional products – as well as a ‘certified green premium’, which means they’re willing to pay even more for certified bio-based products than they do for non-certified ones. “The experiment also shows that demand for conventional products – for instance hand soap, food bags or coloured pens – is generally more elastic than demand for bio-based and certified bio-based products. This means that the introduction of an instrument mix combining an eco-label based on a certification of sustainability, a tax on conventional products and a subsidy on certified sustainable goods may support the market uptake of certified sustainable bio-based goods,” Morone notes.
STAR-ProBio’s findings were continuously submitted for evaluation by the likes of policymakers, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), value chain actors and consumer associations as the project moved further in its work. This work took place over 3 years and resulted in the SAT-ProBio framework – a blueprint of sustainability certification schemes for bio-based products. As Morone explains: “The framework includes two key tools. The Sustainability Certification Tool (SCT) describes the SAT-ProBio methodology and its underpinnings so that the framework can be integrated into the current certification landscape. Meanwhile, the Integrated Assessment Tool (IAT) guides companies in assessing specific bio-based products. By using it, they can identify areas of improvement related to 33 aspects of sustainability, based on 48 different indicators.”
The project ended in April 2020, but work has continued ever since to accelerate the creation of standards for bio-based products. The consortium’s last contribution is a process of pre-standardisation built around the IAT in December 2020 in collaboration with the Italian National Standards Body. This process is expected to be finalised and published by the end of 2021.