EU Circular economy at a turning point ahead

The European Commission has just published a set of initiatives to speed up the transition towards a circular economy. From product sustainability and Ecodesign, to textiles, construction materials and consumer power, EEB experts unpack the Circular Economy Package and the challenges left ahead.

The package, released by the Commission on 30 March 2022, includes a Sustainable Products Initiative to boost the circularity of all products on the EU market, a reform of Ecodesign laws and an Ecodesign Work Plan for 2022-2024, a Strategy for Sustainable and Circular Textiles, a proposal for the revision of the Construction Products Regulation (CPR), and new rules to reinforce the power of consumers within the green transition.

Environmental NGOs have welcomed it as a fundamental step forward, while warning that bolder and more effective action is needed to truly make sustainable products the norm and reduce emissions and resource use, while respecting planetary boundaries and human rights.

Stéphane Arditi, Director of Policy Integration and Circular Economy at the EEB, told META: “This package could help drive the much-needed market and industry transformations to achieve a resource–efficient, sustainable and fair economy – but it still lacks teeth to truly make sustainable products the default choice for all.”

Towards sustainable products for all, by design

With the Sustainable Products Initiative, the Commission laid out a number of measures targeting the sustainability of products sold on the EU market, and restated its ambition to make sustainable products the norm.

Another important development is the mention that the impact assessment of EU regulatory measures should also take into account impacts beyond EU borders.

The package also includes a proposal to unleash the potential of Ecodesign, extending its scope to virtually all products placed on the market, and opening the door to new innovative measures such as carbon and environmental footprinting of products and the development of a Digital Product Passport.

However, warned the EEB, the new regulation will only deliver results through the delegated acts established for specific product groups, which will take time to establish – notably as the Commission foresees a limited increase in staff working on product policy. At the same time, the lack of an immediate ban on the destruction of unsold goods is a missed opportunity to deliver results from the onset.

Moreover, the Commission’s proposal fails to address and disclose social and due diligence aspects within the Product Passport – a step backwards compared to the standards recently set within the EU Battery regulation.

Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, Policy Officer for Products and Circular Economy at the EEB, commented: “Applying Ecodesign to a broader set of products will save Europe emissions, resources, and increase our resilience, but we are still a long way from these measures being put into practice.”

Sewing up plans for more sustainable textiles

The textile industry is one of the most polluting, wasteful and exploitative in the world, yet it is still largely unregulated.

The EU ‘Textiles Strategy’ sets out the European Commission’s aim for new policies to bring more sustainability to the sector. It includes clear plans for binding rules on product design, targets for more reused textile products, and increased producers’ responsibility to bear the end–of–life costs for textile waste.

However, civil society groups are alarmed that the much-anticipated text fails to address human rights abuses in supply chains, and call on policy–makers to ensure strong civil society participation in the development of the initiatives announced in the strategy.

Emily Macintosh, Policy Officer for Textiles at the EEB, said: “You can’t green fast fashion. Today the European Commission has named overproduction as the problem by calling out the number of collections brands put out every year. Now we need to ensure that the actions set out in this strategy are translated into real industrial accountability for all companies regardless of size, and that there are no get-out clauses when it comes to the destruction of goods and ensuring fairness for workers.”

Back in March, the EEB published ‘Wellbeing Wardrobe’, a report exploring how a ‘wellbeing economy’ approach can help move fashion and the textile sector beyond growth towards a system where human and ecological health come first.

Not building up sustainability yet

Despite larger advancements in other files, the Construction Products Regulation (CPR) revision only inches forward in regards to alignment with the Sustainable Products Initiative.

Faced with rising demands for a Renovation Wave, the CPR continues to set a lower bar for construction products, by proposing neither a timeline to define minimum sustainability and environmental performance requirements, nor an obligation to disclose product information transparently through Digital Product Passports.

NGOs have repeatedly warned such lack of ambition is especially concerning for an industry desperately in need of decarbonisation, as the source of 35% of carbon emissions in the EU.

Furthermore, manufacturers are still allowed to set standards and classes of performances for products’ functional performance (i.e. the way products are used in projects), which leaves the door open for dominant industry players to agree on the lowest common denominator that stifle out innovations and SMEs.

“Defining a workplan to set minimum environmental performance requirements as soon as possible and a mandatory Digital Products Passport for construction products are key to decarbonise Europe’s built environment by 2050”, said Gonzalo Sánchez, Policy Officer for Circular Economy and Carbon Neutrality in the Building Sector at the EEB. “Postponing these actions will mean an unsurmountable task in the next decade to decarbonise the building stock, due to the delay in implementing circular measures and investing in low-emission materials.”

Power to the consumer

The Initiative on ‘Empowering the Consumer for the Green Transition’ is set to strengthen existing EU legislation to prevent greenwashing and reduce obsolescence, by amending both the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive (UCPD) and the Consumer Rights Directive (CRD).

The proposal aims to improve the credibility of sustainability claims and labels – a measure highly called-for, as recent research showed that 42% of green claims are potentially false or deceptive.

Moreover, new rules on information to be provided on the length of warranty periods, the availability of spare parts, and software updates, are meant to help consumers understand the expected lifespan of the products they purchase. The proposal also blacklists companies’ practices leading to premature obsolescence, such as avoiding to inform consumers on the need to use software updates that prevent products from working, or requiring the use of original consumables like branded ink cartridge for printers.

The EEB welcomed the initiative as a much–needed step to stop greenwashing, but warned about possible loopholes that could limit its impact. Notably, the initiative fails to clarify how some of the most problematic and widespread claims such as “climate neutrality” are going to be tackled, while the foreseen ban on planned obsolescence was eventually dropped from the proposal.

Blanca Morales, Senior Coordinator for EU Ecolabel at the EEB, said: “We need bolder measures to prohibit unreliable credentials, especially on climate neutrality, and list those that are based on harmonised, robust methods. We call on the Commission to reinforce these provisions in the upcoming regulation on Green Claims. Companies should be obliged to publicly register their claims and evidence before use. No data, no market!”