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Document 52017AE1690

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘New sustainable economic models’ (exploratory opinion)

OJ C 81, 2.3.2018, p. 57–64 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, HR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

2.3.2018   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 81/57


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the ‘New sustainable economic models’

(exploratory opinion)

(2018/C 081/08)

Rapporteur:

Anne CHASSAGNETTE

Co-rapporteur:

Carlos TRIAS PINTÓ

Referral

European Commission, 7.2.2017

Legal basis

Article 304 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union

 

 

Subcommittee

New sustainable economic models

Adoption by the subcommittee

25.9.2017

Adopted at plenary

18.10.2017

Plenary session No

529

Outcome of vote

(for/against/abstentions)

187/3/4

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1.

The economic model of ‘extract, produce, own, discard’ is being called into question by the huge increase in economic, social and environmental challenges facing Europe.

1.2.

We are witnessing the emergence of a hybrid economy in which the traditional market system is competing with the emergence of a multitude of new models that are transforming the relationship between producers, distributors and consumers.

1.3.

In addition to economic returns, some of these new models — such as the functional economy, the sharing economy and responsible finance — seek (or claim) to address other key challenges for people and the planet that are crucial for sustainable development, such as:

social justice;

participatory governance;

conservation of resources and natural capital.

1.4.

Supporting such innovative models represents an opportunity for the European Union to become a leader in innovative economic models that make the idea of economic prosperity inseparable from high-quality social protection and environmental sustainability, and define a ‘European brand’. The EU therefore needs to show ambition on this issue.

1.5.

The present opinion makes the following 10 recommendations to achieve this:

1.5.1.

Improving coordination of action for the sustainable economy within the EU, by creating a permanent body for the new sustainable economy. This structure would be given resources for evaluation and communication, with a view to monitoring the development of new economic models with sustainable development potential and the implementation of the recommendations made in this opinion. This kind of structure would promote dialogue among the various stakeholders at European level. The EESC could contribute to these efforts by establishing a new economy observatory, as it has already recommended in a number of opinions.

1.5.2.

The public authorities of the EU should support research, including responsible research and innovation  (1) , to:

better understand the actual impact of new economic models in terms of sustainability throughout the lifecycle, and undertake further research into the obstacles to the development of these new models;

develop indicators to monitor these new economic models and enhance their visibility.

1.5.3.

It is necessary to ensure that the new models do in fact meet sustainability criteria. Under the concepts of the new sustainable economy, certain stakeholders are developing models that are not necessarily sustainable in all aspects. The Commission must take account not only of the opportunities but also of the potential risks and unwanted effects of certain new economic models, e.g. in relation to social issues, employment regulation and unfair tax competition.

1.5.4.

The EU must encourage and support education, training and information provision to improve understanding among all stakeholders of the new sustainable economic models and of the role of sustainable finance. It is important to highlight the compatibility, and the possible tensions and trade-offs, between sustainability challenges and economic profit.

1.5.5.

The Commission should analyse and complement (but not replace) private initiatives for the exchange of good practice and experience between innovators through internet platforms, networks, conferences, etc. The EESC is already supporting such initiatives by jointly managing a new circular economy platform with the European Commission.

1.5.6.

The public authorities of the EU must ensure that the developers of new genuinely sustainable economic models have access to finance during the initial phases of development and as they continue to grow. There is a need for tools and definitions to give them priority access to public funding instruments and/or to help them get funding from socially responsible investors.

1.5.7.

The European Commission could encourage the trialling of new sustainable models through a dedicated innovation fund which would be open to public-private partnerships. To this end, the EESC recommends setting up pilot projects that can create shared value and integrate the networks of the new economy.

1.5.8.

The public authorities of the EU must take account, in existing EU sectoral policies, of the stakeholders developing these new economic models so as to increase their visibility and create a leverage effect that favours their deployment. For example, it could be useful for the mobility package currently in preparation to support new models of car-sharing or car-pooling as a complement to public transport services.

1.5.9.

In general terms, the EU must put in place a political, fiscal and regulatory framework that supports the large-scale deployment of these new sustainable models, and should also:

break down policy silos and develop a clear vision that treats sustainability as the cornerstone of efforts to modernise its social and economic model;

encourage internalisation of social and environmental externalities and shift Member States’ tax systems towards green taxation. Until these externalities are incorporated into pricing, goods and services in the linear economy will continue to dominate our economy;

develop a regulatory environment that encourages sustainable consumption and production, by increasing transparency and accountability in both existing and emerging sectors so that social and environmental impacts are taken into account throughout the value chain.

1.5.10.

It is necessary to rethink the way the financial sector works to make it sustainable, and to redefine the concept of risk to encompass long-term micro- and macro-level environmental, social and governance challenges. All links in the financial value chain (consumers, banks, investors, regulators and governments) need to take part in this reshaping, so that the outcomes in terms of investments and loans can be better aligned to the expectations of responsible consumers. The EESC suggests creating a platform (hub) to provide consumers with objective information for guidance on such matters.

2.

General comments: the need to promote innovators offering new sustainable economic models in Europe

2.1.

The ‘sustainability’ of our economic model — i.e. its capacity to meet the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs — is an increasingly contested subject (2).

2.2.

In terms of the economy, the mass unemployment persisting in certain countries reflects the problems faced by some population groups in accessing a rapidly changing labour market. Falling purchasing power and weak growth in certain developed countries pose questions about what the aims of our economic model should be.

2.3.

In social terms, widening inequalities raise questions about the fair distribution and sharing of resources (economic and natural). The exclusion of a section of society from the benefits of growth is a reason for re-evaluating our modes of governance with a view to introducing an economic model that is more inclusive and participatory.

2.4.

In environmental terms, climate change risks call into question the dependence of our economic model on fuels with high carbon emissions. The linearity of our production and consumption systems is leading to over-exploitation of natural resources and loss of biodiversity, and the pollution emitted by our economic activities has effects on the environment and on people’s well-being.

2.5.

In this context, the current economic model is facing competition with the appearance of large numbers of innovators offering ‘new economic models’.

2.5.1.

These new models — which can draw on new technologies, particularly digital technologies — are changing the relationship between producers, vendors and consumers, who sometimes become ‘prosumers’. They are shaking up certain traditional concepts such as salaried employment, by offering more flexible forms of work and job-sharing. Although they are described as ‘new’, they may in fact represent a renaissance of old practices.

2.5.2.

This opinion looks at all the new economic models that, as well as seeking economic returns, attempt — or claim — to address at least one of the other pillars of sustainable development, namely:

social justice (respect for human dignity, widening access to goods and services, fair distribution of resources, fair prices, solidarity);

a more participatory form of governance (greater participation by employees and consumers in businesses’ operation and strategic orientation, and a production and consumption system that is more in tune with people’s real needs and with local circumstances);

conservation of resources and natural capital (separating economic prosperity from resource use, internalising negative environmental externalities).

2.5.3.

Innovative entrepreneurs offering new economic models that claim to be more sustainable come under the umbrella of a range of concepts such as the circular economy, the functional economy, the sharing economy, the economy for the common good and responsible finance. They are enriching the established model of the social economy (SE), which puts governance and social and environmental utility at the heart of its activities. The SE cannot be considered a ‘new sustainable economic model’, but it is nevertheless enjoying a renaissance, stimulated by these innovators. While these new models do not always have the same goals (some focus on environmental aspects, others on social aspects), they aim to produce multiple forms of value (economic, social and environmental), and should therefore not be approached on a silo-by-silo basis.

2.6.

The EU should seize the opportunity to take the lead in promoting the sustainable economic model. The European economic model must continue to reinvent itself to take account of long-term challenges and to make the concepts of economic prosperity and sustainability inseparable.

2.6.1.

Consumers in Europe are becoming increasingly aware of the social and environmental impact of their consumption. The rise of the ‘prosumer’, particularly in the renewable energy sector, is helping to shape new relations along the value chain and between producers, distributors and consumers. This also holds true for economic players. In the financial sector, for example, the notion of risk is expanding to encompass ‘extra-financial’ criteria, particularly when valuing assets. In this way, some asset managers are trying to start a process of encouraging businesses to specify, in addition to their statutory obligations, certain corporate social and environmental responsibility commitments. This process is still in its infancy, and should be continued and stepped up on the basis of genuine accountability (3). Expanding sustainable finance is the best way of shifting the European financial system from an approach based on short-term stabilisation to one focusing on long-term impact.

2.6.2.

Europe can derive many benefits from pioneering this new economy.

2.6.3.

The EU can use these new economic models to find solutions to specific problems. Car-sharing can promote more inclusive and more environmentally friendly mobility by updating our modes of transport. Business models designed to get people in difficult situations back into work help to improve access to the labour market for a section of the population.

2.6.4.

This sustainability of the economic model could also become a distinctive feature of the EU and enable it to establish a European ‘brand’.

2.6.5.

The EU has the means to develop ‘European champions’ in these areas. For some businesses, combining financial profitability and sustainability criteria in their business models is becoming, or already is, a real comparative advantage in terms of winning new markets.

2.6.6.

By putting the concept of sustainability at the heart of its economic modernisation drive and of its policy interests, the EU can rally its Member States again around a unifying project, after the shock of Brexit, and put people back at the heart of the European project.

3.

While the emergence of new models that promise to be sustainable represents a real opportunity for the EU, this ‘burgeoning’ will need to be properly understood and appreciated in order to identify and encourage the agents that are driving the change.

3.1.

The functional economy, for example, replaces the idea of selling a good with that of selling the use of a good: the individual consumer no longer purchases a vehicle, but buys a transport service from a provider. From the sustainability point of view, switching from ownership to use should: encourage suppliers to optimise product maintenance, increase product life, and even use eco-design and recycling; create a pool of consumers who use a product and thus intensify the use of goods that have already been produced and may sometimes be under-utilised; and offer access to such products at prices lower than the price of owning them.

3.2.

There is not yet an established definition of the sharing economy  (4). Broadly speaking, it covers businesses that develop digital platforms on which individuals can exchange goods and services: car-pooling, rental of goods, purchase of second-hand goods, lending, donation, etc. However, this definition is very controversial: some consider it to include peer-to-peer exchange systems that are not based on digital platforms, others would broaden it to cover businesses which rent out goods while retaining ownership of them, and still others exclude any initiative of a company seeking a financial return.

3.3.

The circular economy, for its part, was developed to contrast with the linear model (5). It is based on establishing ‘positive value loops’ that reintroduce ‘end-of-life’ goods or materials into the production loop. In an ideal circular model, goods are ecodesigned, manufactured using renewable or recycled resources or waste from other sectors, reused, repaired, upgraded, and finally recycled. The advantages of the circular economy are that it is less risky and less costly, produces added value, and promotes consumer loyalty and employee motivation.

3.4.

Not all the new ‘sustainable’ economic models fit into the three concepts set out above, but these three concepts do serve to highlight the vagueness of certain terms used to describe new economic models, reflecting discussions about the profile of the sharing economy or its close relation the collaborative economy. There may also be some overlap between the concepts, so that the functional economy and the sharing economy could be seen as links in the circular economy.

3.5.

It is also important to draw attention to the diversity of businesses which are developing these new models, with large companies that are modernising their activities operating alongside start-ups seeking rapid growth, social enterprises that may be part of the SE, voluntary organisations and citizens’ initiatives.

3.6.

Moreover, while some entrepreneurs aim both to make a profit and at the same time to meet environmental, social and governance challenges — putting sustainability at the heart of their project and assessing their impact in order to improve it — others do not share this ‘intention’ of sustainability. Their primary aim is profit, and they believe that their economic model has positive externalities for the rest of society, without verifying or seeking to improve such effects.

3.7.

These new models are not intended as a matter of course to be sustainable in all dimensions. Businesses that develop economic models based on the circular economy tend, for example, to place more emphasis on environmental issues and to maximise resource savings. To ensure that the system is also socially sustainable, though, the circular option must remain affordable and accessible for consumers. Moreover, even if the production loops created may be local — thus favouring local resources and jobs — it is quite possible for the resources used, such as recycled materials, to be transported over long distances. By contrast, the prime objective of the sharing economy could be to broaden users’ access to a good, without imposing any environmental requirement.

3.8.

It is also essential to bear in mind that the jury is still out on the actual impact of new, supposedly sustainable, economic models. Thus, the environmental advantages of sharing economy platforms are still open to debate. The environmental performance of platforms that enable individuals to access other people’s goods rather than buying new items themselves is very often more complex than it appears (6). For instance, long-distance car-pooling often competes directly with rail rather than with individual car use, and people acquire goods from others not in order to buy fewer new products, but in order to increase their consumption. At a more general level, switching from ownership to use is not enough to guarantee a reduction in the environmental footprint of consumption and lower the cost for the consumer. Thus businesses that offer smartphones to lease rather than to buy tend to encourage their customers to replace their products sooner and do not necessarily have a system in place for recycling or reusing old products.

3.9.

Finally, the sharing economy raises important issues concerning monopoly power, data protection, labour rights, the way transactions are taxed, and competition with traditional economic models, as reflected in the debates about peer-to-peer accommodation platforms.

3.10.

While public authorities should support businesses that are innovating on the basis of these concepts, they must therefore question such businesses’ intentions and their actual impact, and be aware of the diversity of companies and the pot-pourri of concepts that they offer.

4.

In this final section, this opinion describes the main ‘levers’ that would allow the EU to encourage the deployment of these new models and their sustainability.

4.1.

To start with, it is useful to look at the state of play with initiatives already taken at EU level to support new economic models. This issue has indeed already attracted the attention of public decision-makers in the Member States and at EU level. Decision-makers have started to monitor the development of these models, asking questions about their real contribution to sustainable development and considering which instruments of public policy could provide support for the models that have the greatest impact.

4.1.1.

Several initiatives are ongoing in the European Commission in connection with its communication on smart, innovative and sustainable industry, in which it sets out plans to adopt a comprehensive strategy for industrial competitiveness, by combining the active roles of all stakeholders, and to empower individuals:

the circular economy package (7), which includes proposals for revising waste legislation and a detailed action plan for the circular economy comprising measures provided for up to 2018;

a European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform to highlight and encourage exchange of best practice, as well as networking, between stakeholders;

a European agenda for the collaborative economy (8) and online platforms (9);

studies being carried out on the sustainability of the sharing economy and on industrial ecology;

the development of voluntary guidelines for public procurement;

over the course of 2017, the development by a High-Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance of recommendations for incorporating sustainable finance into EU strategy, and into the capital markets union, in a comprehensible way.

4.1.2.

The EESC has already adopted opinions on: the functional economy  (10) , the sharing economy and its twin the collaborative economy  (11) , the circular economy  (12) , innovation as a driver of new business models  (13) and the economy for the common good  (14). Those opinions highlight:

the potential sustainability of the new models and the importance of better analysing their real impact;

the need to support businesses that are actually adopting local, cooperative, ecological and social models.

4.2.

The opinions in question also present proposals for public measures to support the development of companies adopting economic models that are both new and sustainable. Below is a list of those measures, fleshed out with other ideas that emerged from the hearings conducted in conjunction with the present opinion.

4.2.1.

First all, a permanent body must be set up that focuses on new economic models with potential for sustainability. This body would monitor and oversee their development and the implementation of the recommendations made in this opinion, and must include the European institutions — first and foremost the Commission and the EESC — as well as federations of innovative businesses, trade unions, associations and researchers.

4.2.2.

Secondly, the European public authorities need to help to improve understanding and monitoring of these developments.

4.2.2.1.

To this end, the Commission could increase its contribution to research, in particular responsible research to improve understanding of the real social and environmental impact of emerging economic models, and of the obstacles to their development. This would also help to clarify the definitions of these often vague concepts. This work would need to be done in partnership with all stakeholders in the research and innovation process, to ensure it was based on their experience.

4.2.2.2.

Both in Eurostat at European level, and in the Member States’ national statistics bodies, it is important to develop indicators and statistics to monitor the development of these models and to raise their profile.

4.2.2.3.

One key lever for the development of new economic models is to promote education and training for the various stakeholders, in order to improve their awareness of the new models and make these models more visible. New and sustainable economic models still represent only a fraction of the European economy. They often come up against entrenched mechanisms and mindsets, as well as a lack of understanding of their challenges. It would therefore be useful to develop training programmes:

for public decision-makers and their administrations, with a view to drawing up calls for tender likely to encourage companies that use new and sustainable economic models;

for innovative businesses, by encouraging incubators to offer training on sustainability, for example on the re-use of goods;

for all businesses, especially SMEs, to raise awareness of innovative and sustainable economic models;

for employees and workers in economic sectors that are evolving or restructuring, to help them acquire the skills required by the new economic models and sustainability issues;

for the general public and consumers, via a programme to inform them about these new economic models and their products.

4.2.3.

In addition to monitoring and improving understanding of these models, we need to make use of other levers:

4.2.3.1.

One essential step is to promote the exchange of good practice and experience between innovators — and with the research community – through internet platforms and networks. Private initiatives have already been launched for some of the new economic models. The Commission should assess ways of supporting and complementing these initiatives, without replacing them, and should get involved with them in order to gain a better understanding of these innovations and discuss them with innovators. In the case of other models, such initiatives are struggling to emerge, for example due to lack of human or financial resources. The Commission should provide more sustained support in such cases, and also get involved with them.

4.2.3.2.

One of the tasks for these networks should also be to help innovators to access the European support mechanisms to which they are entitled. Many of the businesses that use new and sustainable economic models are SMEs, which complain that it is difficult to understand the EU’s complex procedures.

4.2.3.3.

The Commission could promote access to finance for sustainable economic models via calls for tender focused specifically on innovation. It should also ensure that public procurement rules do not present a disproportionate barrier to businesses using new and sustainable economic models, and consider a derogation mechanism to protect them from competition that they cannot possibly respond to. In addition, traditional funders of innovation, both public and private, are unfamiliar with these new models, are therefore reluctant to support them, and do not appreciate their social and environmental benefits. The European Commission must provide a better analysis of the problems in accessing finance for the new sustainable economic models and draw up recommendations for overcoming these. It could also look at the emergence of alternative (virtual or social) currencies and the role they could play in supporting these models.

4.2.3.4.

In order to develop, new sustainable economic models need to be tested. In certain cases — such as transport or industrial ecology — this testing must be carried out in partnership with public authorities. The European Commission could encourage the trialling of new models through an innovation fund specifically for sustainable models which would be open to public-private partnerships. In particular, the Commission should ensure that these tests cover rural and peri-urban areas, and not only the major urban centres.

4.2.3.5.

The feedback should make it possible to identify new standardisation needs, and to determine which standards and rules are impeding the emergence of certain innovative and sustainable models. These standards and rules must be made compatible with innovation, as has been done for the approval processes for new products and services in the building sector. The majority of companies behind the new economic models are SMEs, which do not always have the resources to manage the workload resulting from standards.

4.2.3.6.

Another important lever in promoting the growth of these new models is to incorporate them into EU sectoral policies. Thus, the new peer-to-peer marketplaces and businesses in the functional economy must be regarded as waste prevention agents and supported under EU policies for the circular economy. The idea here is not to launch new initiatives or introduce sectoral regulation, but to include the new economic models in the new industrial strategy (15) and in existing sectoral policies.

4.2.3.7.

Finally, the Commission must take account of the potential unwanted effects of certain new economic models, e.g. in relation to social issues, employment regulation and unfair tax competition. The European Union must continue its monitoring and harmonising efforts in relation to the collaborative economy.

4.2.4.

Generally speaking, the new sustainable economic models will develop only if businesses and those that run them are convinced that this will make economic sense in the EU of 2030 or 2050. For this reason, sustainability should be seen as a cross-cutting EU objective. The EU’s policy, tax and regulatory framework must provide greater visibility, in order to guide the actions of economic stakeholders, public bodies and civil society. With this in mind, this opinion recommends:

breaking down policy silos around this issue, treating sustainability as a cross-cutting criterion that will facilitate modernisation of Europe’s economy. This is a question of aligning EU policies with sustainability criteria and incorporating those criteria in legislation. For example, each new regulation could undergo a more rigorous sustainability test. At policy level, the EU needs to develop a strong message that shows its support for sustainable development and demonstrates its leadership. And this means translating the sustainable development objectives into a new EU political strategy to 2030, by adopting a synoptic table of EU performance indicators and ‘beyond GDP’ indicators and incorporating these into the European semester.

internalising social and environmental externalities based on an economic rationale, by encouraging the Member States to better incorporate green taxation  (16) and eliminate anti-environmental subsidies. Carbon-price signals need to be strengthened at European level, for example by reforming the ETS or taking additional measures at national level with regard to the energy sector, which accounts for 60 % of all CO2 emissions. This internalisation would allow sustainable products and technologies — which are designed to limit such externalities and which can therefore be more expensive to produce — to become more competitive;

developing a regulatory framework that is favourable to sustainable consumption and production (ecodesign standards, extending the lifespan of products, energy labelling, targets for waste prevention, combating transport pollution, energy efficiency standards for buildings, etc.). The current ecodesign legislation, for example, does not go far enough (17).. The standards should be adapted to the specific circumstances of SMEs (‘SME test’).

4.2.4.1.

Finally, rethinking the modus operandi of the financial sector so as to make it sustainable and clearly incorporate environmental and social questions into investment choices and into the concept of risk under prudential and solvency standards. This process is already under way in the case of socially responsible investors and certain large companies, with the concept of ‘integrative thinking’ employed in strategic and operational decision-making (18). In practice, this process might also lead to:

reducing ‘short-termism’, for example by including more savers in the acquisition of long-term assets,

supporting the introduction of open-source software and solutions in the financial sector, to promote healthy competition,

fostering alignment between FinTech criteria and sustainability criteria,

strengthening reporting on sustainability issues (support for environmental rating/certification) for businesses and financial institutions (see the recommendations of the Taskforce on Climate Disclosure in this regard),

including sustainability criteria in fiduciary obligations,

sustainability testing for future European financial regulations.

Brussels, 18 October 2017.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Georges DASSIS


(1)  For example, under the ninth Framework Programme (FP9) for the period 2021-2027.

(2)  SC/047, The transition towards a more sustainable European future — a strategy for 2050 (in preparation) (see page 44 of this Official Journal).

(3)  On this subject, see OJ C 21, 21.1.2011, p. 33, which explains in detail the development of ‘socially responsible financial products’.

(4)  OJ C 303, 19.8.2016, p. 36.

(5)  OJ C 264, 20.7.2016, p. 98.

(6)  Institute for Sustainable Development and International Relations (IDDRI) study No 03/14: The sharing economy: make it sustainable.

(7)  http://ec.europa.eu/environment/circular-economy/index_en.htm

(8)  COM(2016) 356 final.

(9)  COM(2016) 288 final.

(10)  OJ C 75, 10.3.2017, p. 1.

(11)  OJ C 75, 10.3.2017, p. 33; OJ C 303, 19.8.2016, p. 36; OJ C 177, 11.6.2014, p. 1.

(12)  OJ C 264, 20.7.2016, p. 98 and OJ C 230, 14.7.2015, p. 91.

(13)  OJ C 303, 19.8.2016, p. 28.

(14)  OJ C 13, 15.1.2016, p. 26.

(15)  COM(2017) 479 final.

(16)  OJ C 226, 16.7.2014, p. 1.

(17)  Eco-design work programme 2016-2019.

(18)  Work by the High-Level Expert Group on Sustainable Finance.


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