Consumer protection is high on the EU agenda these days, with the European Commission and Parliament working on three new laws aimed to curtail greenwashing and boost people’s right to repair, write Roberta Arbinolo and Bich Dao.
Consumers increasingly care about the environmental impact of what they buy, and the market is responding – but not all that glitters is green. Identifying which products and services are better for people and nature is not an easy job, as more and more companies jump on the sustainability bandwagon and resort to a wide range of tactics to sell their offering as environmentally-friendly – even when it is not the case.
Greenwashing had never been so widespread: 75% of the products on the EU market carry an implicit or explicit green claim, but more than half of these claims are vague, misleading or unfounded, while almost half of the 230 ecolabels available in the EU have very weak or no verification procedures.
At the same time, too many companies add hidden features into their products which make them fail ahead of time and at the same time impossible to repair, forcing consumers to buy a new version.
Over the past few weeks, the EU has been taking on these unfair commercial practices by proposing a new set of laws. Here are the ones to watch.
Power to consumers
This week, the European Parliament voted for a stronger EU law to empower consumers for the green transition and curtail the misleading company tactics that hamper sustainable shopping choices.
The Parliament’s vote reinforced the original proposal by the European Commission, by pushing for more reliable sustainability labels and against climate-washing and early obsolescence.
This included a ban on all claims of a neutral, reduced, compensated or positive greenhouse gas emission impact on the environment based on carbon offsetting. These claims are among the most widespread and the most misleading, as they cannot be backed up by evidence, and they trick consumers into believing that products, services or entire companies are climate-friendly when this is not the case.
The Parliament also added provisions to improve the reliability and transparency of sustainability labels, took on early obsolescence by blacklisting designed features that limit product durability, and pushed for more transparency on barriers to repair.
Making sense of green claims
Greenwashing was also the target of the Green Claims Directive tabled by the European Commission last week. This new law is supposed to work hand in hand with the one on empowering consumers: while the latter will rule what companies cannot do (i.e., unfair commercial practices), the Green Claims law will establish how they can operate (i.e., which methodologies should be used to prove and communicate green credentials).
The Commission’s proposal introduces a few important measures to help clear the EU market of unreliable and confusing green marketing: for the first time, it sets minimum rules for companies to back up their claims, while ruling out any product rating system that is not based on EU common rules. It also sets minimum transparency requirements for sustainability labels, which will have to be verified by an independent third party, like the EU Ecolabel, and it establishes a registry of the green labels that can be trusted.
Moreover, companies will be obliged to provide independent supporting evidence alongside their green claims, and market surveillance authorities will have to enforce this provision with regular checks and severe penalties in case of infringement.
Blanca Morales, Senior Coordinator for EU Ecolabel at the EEB, said: “The Green Claims Directive is a promising tool to wipe out the misleading claims that muddy the waters of sustainability and make it hard to distinguish between the companies who strive to reduce their impacts and those who just greenwash their products.”
However, the EEB also regretted the lack of a clear ban on the use of green claims on products that contain hazardous chemicals.
A step closer to the right to repair
Also complementary to the empowering consumer law, the European Commission has tabled a new Directive on Common Rules Promoting the Repair of Goods. While the former focuses on pre-purchase repair information, the latter aims to boost repair options during the use phase.
The Directive represents the first EU law proposed to directly improve repair options, a significant milestone for the right to repair campaign which has long battled for improved consumer rights, reduced waste and more efficient resource use.
Most notable under the new directive, each member state will be required to create an online platform listing repairers, refurbishers, and used-device buyers to help consumers navigate their options when their products fail, as well as to legitimise independent repairers.
While the Directive is an important step towards making repairs more accessible to consumers and benefit the environment, campaigners highlighted that these changes are only a drop in the bucket that is the right to repair reality.
According to the EEB, to ensure the law is truly on the consumer’s side, policymakers should address the glaring escape clauses for producers. Currently, the so-called ‘obligation’ to repair beyond the legal guarantee is limited to only certain products, sparing more problematic ones (e.g. ICT products ). Moreover, the requirements to make repair more accessible do not include affordability, which virtually makes repair not an option in most cases. Finally, producers would only be obliged upon consumer’s request, which keeps the burden on consumers who already have low awareness.
The most sustainable consumption is less consumption
While empowering consumers and equipping them with the tools to identify lower-impact products is undoubtedly key, environmental NGOs reminded that the environmentally friendliest purchase is always the one we do not make.
For the EEB. the positive reception of these three laws, which respond to citizens’ raising concerns towards the environmental impacts of their purchases, should embolden the EU to tackle consumption patterns on a more systemic level, starting by setting reduction targets for material footprints – a growing trend on national level to tackle the bloc’s unsustainable resource use.