A well-known proverb says, ‘all roads lead to Rome,’ meaning an outcome can be reached by many methods or ideas. In European policy making, sustainable lifestyles must become our Rome: the aspired-to destination to which all roads must go.
While some roads such as transport electrification, renewable energy, housing renovation and more plant-based diets are the well-known highways, product policy and consumer rights are still rather minor roads. They are somehow connected to the ultimate goal of sustainability, but they are roads that urgently need broadening.
In European policy making, sustainable lifestyles must become our Rome: the aspired-to destination to which all roads must go.
The EU’s upcoming circular economy action plan should make an important contribution to upgrading the consumer pathway to sustainable lifestyles, with several new roads under construction.
First, we are awaiting with suspense the Commission’s proposal on empowering consumers in the green transition and a regulation on substantiating green claims. Second, the Commission will come forward with a sustainable product policy initiative. This will include a revised Ecodesign Directive and improved requirements on the durability and reparability of products.
The two proposals go hand-in-hand. A successful green transition will require both clear, credible and comparable consumer information as well as strengthened product design requirements and improved consumer rights.
Building new roads to Rome
Get rid of greenwashing
Today, there are numerous gaps and shortcomings in the information available to consumers to be able to make truly green consumption choices.
To combat this, in future all green claims should be pre-approved before they can be used on products. Claims should be checked and only be used if the benefits can be demonstrated, like the approach the EU has already taken with health and nutrition claims on food products.
If we can substantially reduce the number of misleading green claims, this will give more visibility to trustworthy information such as the EU Ecolabel. It will also prevent consumers from making purchases they might not have made had they known the product’s environmental impact, although a product without a (legitimate) green claim or Ecolabel is not necessarily environmentally harmful.
Improve info on lifespan and reparability
To enable consumers to select the most sustainable products, additional information should also be provided in standardised format at point of sale. Consumers should be informed about the lifespan and reparability of products, the availability of spare parts, software updates and the length of guarantees.
However, information requirements alone will not be sufficient to achieve a big leap towards a more sustainable future. We therefore see the need for a parallel road: strengthened consumer rights and EU legislation to address current market failures.
Strengthen consumer rights to more durable products
First, legal guarantee periods for durable goods such as household appliances should be longer than the current two years. What’s more, both producers and sellers should be made liable under the legal guarantee scheme. Second, the EU Ecodesign Regulation should be revised and minimum sustainability criteria set for all product categories. These could then be further elaborated in product-specific regulations, creating requirements for the durability, upgradability and reparability of products. Manufacturers must also be required to provide software updates for a certain time. Finally, the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive should prohibit practices which artificially limit products’ lifespan.
Boost “made to last by design” requirements
Policy-makers should also improve the design requirements for consumer products on the market. The EU Ecodesign Directive has played an important role in the last 15 years in making products more energy and resource efficient, but the vast majority of consumer products still lack any formal sustainability requirements. These are not only missing for the end product and for sectors such as textiles, but also unfortunately for the production phase.
With our recommendations, we hope to have set out some ideas that can pave new ways to Rome by linking stronger consumer policy to other fields of the green transition. It is people that need to take those roads, which is why we need to ensure they are not burdensome or tiring but instead pleasant journeys.
 Find out more in our paper, ‘Getting rid of Greenwashing. Restoring consumer confidence in green claims,’
 The Ecolabel helps distinguish products and services with a low environmental impact. BEUC has been contributing to the development of the Ecolabel since its creation in 1992.
 Find out more in our paper, ‘Durable and Repairable Products. Changes needed for a successful path towards the green transition’
 Read more in our paper: ‘Making More Sustainable Products the new normal. Consumer recommendations for a meaningful EU Sustainable Product Initiative
 Find out more: ‘Consumer checklist on the upcoming EU Due Diligence Legislation’