EU prepares to ‘make sustainable products the norm’

EU officials want to table new circular economy laws aimed at fostering responsible supply chains and pushing back against greenwashing.

After months of public consultation with industry leaders and civil society, the European Commission is finally preparing to put forward several laws aimed at “making sustainable products the norm.”

From repairable smartphones and durable clothes to toxic-free supply chains and the verification of green claims, the new laws will set the path for Europe’s transition to a more resilient, less wasteful and more circular economy. A comprehensive proposal is expected by the end of the year. 

Known as the Sustainable Products Initiative, this new policy framework was first announced in the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan last year. It builds on the success of previous rules agreed two years ago, when for the very first time the Commission mandated minimum design standards to make TVs, washing machines and other home appliances more easily repairable.

“The new rules will be part of a much more comprehensive framework, and are expected to target more products and sectors, including the fashion industry,” said Jean-Pierre Sweitzer, a policy officer at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

“We hope the Commission will keep the ambition high when drafting the laws. More and more people are demanding better and sustainable products because they have realised that, with the right safeguards in place, what’s good for the environment is also good for our wallets,” he said.

The truth about the things we buy

Amongst the top priorities in the Sustainable Products Initiative is the development of a centralized, EU-wide database collecting information about the level of sustainability of each product placed on the market.

According to NGOs, developing a product passport – a kind of database providing access to relevant product information – could help people choose the best products in terms of repairability, durability, resource use, carbon footprint, chemical content and due diligence. It could also help other actors such as public procurers, repairers and recyclers.

“There’s enormous potential to create a competitive market for sustainable products while also telling us the truth about the things we buy and holding manufacturers accountable for their sustainability claims,” Schweitzer said.

A recent screening exercise of products sold online carried out by the European Commission and national market surveillance authorities estimated that 42% of claims were exaggerated, false or deceptive.

In the coming months, the Commission will propose a suitable format for the product passport. NGOs have so far suggested that it could provide the basis of mobile applications, which consumers can download on their phones and use to scan labels appearing online and in shops next to each product. 

Alongside the product passport, which will primarily be an information tool, it will be critical that the European Commission set strong mandatory requirements on products, such as the minimum reparairability requirements recently established for white goods. Other similar measures such as a repairability label are currently under discussion.