greener choices made easier
Photo by Mediamodifier on Unsplash

Sustainability made simple: five ways the EU is empowering greener choices

Feeling inspired to adopt a more sustainable lifestyle, but finding yourself confronted with obstacles at every turn? It’s a familiar struggle. The good news: the times are changing, as sustainable consumption has never been higher on the EU agenda. Roberta Arbinolo and Bich Dao report on five ways the EU is making greener choices easier.

Products designed to fail, repairs cost an arm and a leg, and a marketplace saturated with deceptive eco-claims: navigating this landscape can leave even the most well-intentioned consumers feeling overwhelmed. But fear not: amidst these challenges, the European Union (EU) has stepped up to the plate, placing sustainable consumption firmly on its agenda, responding to the growing concern for environmental impact among consumers.  

As we approach the end of the term and gear up for EU elections, it is time to reflect on the strides made by the EU Green Deal in addressing these challenges. Join us as we explore five EU initiatives that pave the way for a future of more trustworthy sustainable products. 

1. Sustainable products by design

Sustainable products can only stem from sustainable designs, and the newly negotiated EU Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation is a significant stride in this direction. This regulation, alongside its predecessor, the Ecodesign and energy labelling framework, mandates minimum standards like efficiency, durability, and recyclability for nearly all EU market products—excluding some like military equipment and motor vehicles. 

Under the new Ecodesign law, producers must trace harmful substances in products, and the European Commission may restrict them if detrimental to human health or recycling. 

The law also bans the wasteful practice of destroying unsold textiles, and requires more transparency on the destruction of other products. Campaigners had been calling on the EU to also ban the destruction of unsold electronics, a rampant practice which poses major environmental concerns.  

Regrettably, loopholes exempt major online retailers like Shein, Temu, and Amazon from the rules set out under this law, fostering an uneven playing field and risking non-compliance. For instance, a recent study in the lighting industry found up to 95% of lights sold on online platforms don’t meet current standards

2. More repairable products 

Even the best-designed sustainable products will eventually wear out. When it happens, repair should be the easiest and most accessible option, before replacing. 

Europe will soon have a new repair law to bolster independent repair services and enhance access to affordable repair solutions. Among its provisions, it will ensure reasonable prices for original parts, and prohibit software practices that hinder independent repair and the use of compatible and reused spare parts. Producers will also have to provide repair options beyond the standard two-year legal guarantee period.  

For now, the rules will only apply to selected product categories: smartphones and tablets, washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, fridges, displays, welding equipment, servers and soon vacuum cleaners.

While this represents progress, campaigners demand more action on early obsolescence – where products are deliberately designed to have a limited lifespan to encourage frequent replacement. All in all, the Right to Repair is gaining ground, but there is still a stretch ahead until it applies to all products across the EU.  

3. Ban on empty promises 

Ever wondered whether your “100% good for the planet” toothpaste is lying to you? You’re not alone.  

Following the heightened demand for eco-friendly products, 3 out of 4 products on the EU market come with a 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

Once again, the EU came to rescue: the newly adopted law on Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition will help us cut through the smoke and mirror of green marketing. This law cracks down on unfair practices that hinder consumers from making greener choices. Notably, it outlaws deceptive “climate neutral” claims, which are among the most misleading green claims on the market

Under this law, producers can only label a product as “eco” or “green” when the entire product is truly greener than conventional ones, and certified by a trustworthy scheme such as the EU Ecolabel. In addition, it will not be possible to advertise a product or a company as green if only a minor aspect of the product or business has been made more sustainable. More rigorous oversight will also extend to the credibility and reliability of sustainability labels. 

4. Higher standards for green claims 

For producers who want to continue making sustainability claims, we need the receipts. The new Green Claims Directive will complement the consumer empowerment law, making it necessary for traders to back up their green claims or labels with evidence. It lays out guidelines for gathering this proof and requires independent verification. 

The law proposal, approved by the EU Parliament last week, sets stricter rules to back green claims and labels. For instance, it clarifies that a claim cannot be verified if companies hold back necessary evidence under the pretext of trade secrets. In addition, the new law will give more voice to civil society, in the definition of future legislation on the matter. 

Yet, campaigners remain concerned about the introduction of a simplified verification process, which opens the door to potentially granting a ‘presumption of conformity’ for certain claims in the future. As the law enters negotiations among EU member states, ensuring consistent and independent verification for green claims across the board should be a priority.

5. EU Ecolabel, a voice to trust 

While the new laws combat malpractices, we need a guide to find the products that are true sustainability frontrunners. The EU’s very own EU Ecolabel does exactly that, promoting products that meet the highest environmental standards. It is based on scientific criteria that are set in consultation with various groups, including the European Environmental Bureau and the European Consumer Organisation. 

Since its launch in 1992, this EU-wide labelling scheme has turned into a large and recognised certification that helps consumers make greener choices. Today, it covers nearly 90,000 non-food products and services including detergents, paints, furniture, electronics, paper products, cosmetics, personal hygiene products, textiles and shoes, as well as tourist accommodations

Besides guiding consumers across store aisles, the EU Ecolabel has also served as a benchmark for EU policies, from Ecodesign requirements to the criteria for green public procurement and the EU taxonomy, which classifies what economic activities are environmentally sustainable. Companies awarded with the label are also automatically compliant with the green claims law and do not have to provide further evidence. 

The most sustainable practice 

While we are advancing towards more sustainable consumption, it is vital to acknowledge that true progress is not only about reducing the environmental impact of products and empowering consumers to make greener choices. It is also about reassessing the way we consume: after all, the most sustainable purchase is the one we do not make. 

The European Commission and Parliament that will emerge from the EU elections in June need a pact for a common future which includes setting reduction targets for the bloc’s material footprints, which is now double the sustainable level. Only by doing so, we can work towards bringing Europe’s resource use back within planetary boundaries and truly create a more sustainable future for generations to come.