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Document 52019IE1026

Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Consumers in the circular economy’(own-initiative opinion)

EESC 2019/01026

OJ C 353, 18.10.2019, p. 11–16 (BG, ES, CS, DA, DE, ET, EL, EN, FR, HR, IT, LV, LT, HU, MT, NL, PL, PT, RO, SK, SL, FI, SV)

18.10.2019   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 353/11


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Consumers in the circular economy’

(own-initiative opinion)

(2019/C 353/03)

Rapporteur: Carlos TRIAS PINTÓ

Plenary Assembly Decision

24.1.2019

Legal basis

Rule 32(2) of the Rules of Procedure

Own-initiative opinion

Section responsible

Single Market, Production and Consumption

Adopted in section

4.7.2019

Adopted at plenary

17.7.2019

Plenary session No

545

Outcome of vote

(for/against/abstentions)

200/4/9

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1.

The EESC is calling for a strategic shift — at European, national and local level — to unequivocally promote new models of circularity, not only by stepping up the alignment of all actors, but also by placing consumers at the centre of public policy.

1.2.

Making for a circular economy and cutting down on excess consumption will therefore achieve the intensity and efficiency needed by strengthening the role of consumers in moving beyond the current production and consumption model, since everyday acts of consumption are the most effective levers for change.

1.3.

Education, life-long training and self-learning must be put in place, and consumers provided with the most objective information possible, steering them towards circular patterns of behaviour. In this regard, the EESC highlights the role of local public administrations and consumer organisations.

1.4.

Delivery of these actions will be measured using the impact indicators that are being drawn up based on the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 12 (SDG 12) (1) and its associated targets, generating new standardisation processes.

1.5.

Reflecting the cross-cutting nature of aware consumption, the other 16 SDGs and their respective associated targets will complement the impact assessment, and SDG 17, Partnerships, will find spaces for co-creation and shared responsibility, facilitating the multiplier and scalability effects required.

1.6.

Calculating the social and environmental footprint of products in the various value chains is something that has huge potential for providing consumers with relevant information regarding their purchasing decisions, as part of a digital society. The EESC insists on using indicators that are reliable, comparable and verifiable, and stresses in particular the importance of monitoring indicators relating to chemical substances, including how they are handled.

1.7.

Activities must be guided by a win-win approach and not be uniform: they should be tailored to the specific conditions of different areas and economic sectors, applying bottom-up methods involving all the relevant actors in each case. Such initiatives must be strongly rooted in the development of local economies: coordination should be driven by the authorities and by the empowerment of consumer organisations.

1.8.

Europe’s leadership regarding various circular economy models must be matched by the creation of a business environment that facilitates the internationalisation of circular economy goods and services, with feedback from pioneering experiments in countries such as South Korea (2). These models must be backed by specific guidelines on a fair transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies (3), which can also ensure a level playing field in relation to opportunistic products from third countries.

1.9.

Advertising and commercial practices play a key role in consumer decisions. Companies’ corporate social responsibility policies must necessarily be involved in countering greenwashing and social-washing. It is crucial in this regard to strengthen current official monitoring and accreditation structures for transition processes towards a circular economy.

1.10.

Taxation and responsible public procurement are effective tools to gear a rewards-based approach to responsible production and consumption as part of the gradual standardisation of products and services. For the first aspect, the Member States should consider effective ways to apply a reward-based approach moving towards a gradual convergence of circular taxation that contributes to the European Single Market, and for the second, local administrations should introduce support plans for ‘sustainable suppliers’ to make it easier for them to ensure their production meets current contractual requirements and is scalable — which at present often leads to deficits.

1.11.

The EESC also calls for voluntary labelling, as a step towards mandatory labelling, provided it is based on independent, verified voluntary environmental excellence schemes. Promoting the EU ecolabel (4) and extending it to more products would make it a flagship ‘brand’ for sustainable choices in Europe.

1.12.

The EESC points to the urgent need to improve eco-design, systematically researching requirements concerning lifetime, repair, chemical inputs, etc., while also meeting social criteria and at the same time promoting local consumption networks and consumer-producer practices.

2.   Introduction and background

2.1.

Sustainable growth and competitiveness should also take account of qualitative factors: this means no exploitation of the environment or of labour, fair living conditions in keeping with the means of the planet and, ultimately, a model that balances economic prosperity, environmental issues and social inclusiveness (5).

2.2.

The circular economy needs to represent a model for human behaviour that is compatible with the rules governing the natural world and which enables the preservation and regeneration of natural capital.

2.3.

A large number of studies, proposals and opinions have already been produced on the transition from a linear to a circular economy, focusing principally on production and barely addressing the role of the consumer, who is a key stakeholder when it comes to dealing with the challenges of the circular economy.

2.4.

To begin with, a considerable discrepancy is evident between what consumers say and how they behave: while they are very aware of social and environmental challenges (6), in practice their behaviour is coloured by the ‘low cost’ phenomenon, where the price of a product or service (which does not take into account the effect of negative external factors) is frequently more important than its intrinsic quality.

2.5.

The figures therefore decrease when we move away from perceptions and expectations and towards actions and commitments. The tension between what is accessible and what is sustainable is thus revealed, with information and training being established as key factors when it comes to optimising the participation of the consumer in the process.

2.6.

Some specific references to consumer behaviour have been included as part of the Circular Economy Package, and the EESC has endorsed these (7):

2.7.

The European Committee of the Regions, in its opinion An EU action plan for the Circular Economy (8) has focused on consumer behaviour and social trends, stressing the key role of local and regional authorities in strengthening measures relating to education, training and professional qualifications that improve our understanding of sustainable consumption, the conservation of resources and the prevention of waste, as well as the responsibility of producers in the design and marketing phases.

2.8.

Finally, the EESC stresses that certain innovative forms of consumption can also support the development of the circular economy: sharing products or infrastructure (sharing economy), consuming services instead of products, using IT or digital platforms, etc.

3.   The circular economy in EU policies

3.1.

The real challenge of the EU’s circular economy policies, aside from the regulatory and productive aspects, is to harness the human capital of consumers’ behaviour through their daily habits and decisions. The multiplier effect of individual actions would point to the full participation of consumers as an effective catalyst for change.

3.2.

In the Communication Closing the loop: An EU action plan for the Circular Economy (9), the Commission concludes that ‘The choices made by millions of consumers can support or hamper the circular economy’.

3.3.

It also feels that ‘Faced with a profusion of labels or environmental claims, EU consumers often find it difficult to differentiate between products and to trust the information available. Green claims may not always meet legal requirements for reliability, accuracy and clarity’.

3.4.

‘Price is a key factor affecting purchasing decisions, both in the value chain and for final consumers. Member States are therefore encouraged to provide incentives and use economic instruments, such as taxation, to ensure that product prices better reflect environmental costs. Aspects relating to guarantees, such as the legal guarantee period and the reversal of the burden of proof (…) can protect consumers against defective products and contribute to products’ durability and repairability’.

3.5.

Yet while it captures many of the key parameters of sustainability, it also ignores the many interactions that occur in the various value chains, relegating the consumer to the role of a secondary actor.

4.   The ‘state of the art’ in EU policies

4.1.

Europe already has the regulatory framework necessary to promote responsible public procurement (10), and its potential (11) makes it one of the driving forces behind the circular economy. However, there are numerous difficulties with regard to its effective implementation, which requires greater clarification of which products and services are considered circular.

4.2.

Standardisation processes should be dealt with at a global level on the basis of new metrics (as a multilateral and globalised economy requires a common language). This should be underpinned by a dynamic terminology, as best practices from the various value chains need to be fed back into the transition process.

4.3.

A new family of socio-environmental impact indicators will be introduced by the European Commission’s Action Plan on Financing Sustainable Growth and the regulation on a new taxonomy for sustainable activities (12), in full keeping with the United Nations guidelines.

4.4.

With the backing of European Commission resources, now reinforced and brought together under InvestEU, it is expected that there will be a significant redirection of resources towards activities that contribute to mitigating climate change and prevent the depletion of natural resources, such as renovating housing stock and using geothermal energy (13), both of which are linked to consumers’ decisions.

4.5.

The New Deal for Consumers, with its strengths and weaknesses, will help to improve consumer confidence (14). In the EESC’s view (15), improving the implementation framework of consumer legislation is key for the balanced development of circularity.

4.6.

It is worth highlighting the joint initiative of the European Commission and the EESC to launch the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform (16), ‘a network of networks’ which provides a place to address specific challenges and share best practices and solutions. The Retail Forum (REAP) (17) and the EU Platform on Food Losses and Food Waste (18), amongst others, also play an important role.

5.   Future commitments from the European Commission

5.1.

In its work on eco-design, the Commission will look in particular at certain proportionate requirements regarding durability, information relating to repairs and availability of spare parts. It will also assess the introduction of information on durability in energy labelling.

5.2.

In its revised proposals on waste, the Commission assesses new rules that will encourage re-use activities.

5.3.

The Commission will work towards better enforcement of warranties on tangible products, explore possibilities for improvement, and tackle false green claims.

5.4.

The Commission will prepare an independent testing programme under Horizon Europe to press ahead with issues related to premature obsolescence (19).

5.5.

The Commission will improve the implementation of green public procurement, focusing on including the circular economy in either the new or the revised criteria.

6.   Are we really moving towards a circular economy?

6.1.

‘Sustainability is a [process] […] whereby the behaviours, actions and decisions of governments, companies, workers, citizens and consumers are driven by the realisation of their economic, environmental and social impacts in a responsible manner’ (20).

6.2.

In the EESC’s view, the focus of the EU institutions is on the environmental and productive aspects of the circular economy, with barely a mention of the social and consumer-related aspects. As a result there is a risk of moving in a circular manner towards another linear economy.

6.3.

Under a comprehensive approach, the proactive role of consumers must overcome mere asymmetrical participation (which limits them to the role of urban agents recycling domestic waste), and must empower them to participate in the full circularity of the process.

6.4.

The good news is that we have had a relevant toolbox for the circular economy at our disposal, based on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and their associated targets. This, in combination with the binding protocols of COP 21 (21) aimed at mitigating climate change, provides us with an overarching framework of immense potential.

6.5.

The EESC emphasises that the transition will be more efficient and better adapted to SDG No 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production), if the space between supply and demand is better connected, anchoring the circular economy to the region in question.

7.   EESC proposals for providing consumers with a greater role in circular economy models

7.1.

Responsible research and innovation (RRI), within the framework of Horizon Europe: the balanced participation of all stakeholders, in particular consumers and/or their representatives, shall be facilitated.

7.2.

Eco-design and eco-innovation: from the perspective of environmental co-responsibility, the active participation of consumers will be enhanced through practices of shared value creation, which can be accredited by means of officially regulated quality labels.

7.3.

Consumers will be encouraged to get involved in planning corporate social responsibility policies by taking part in a ‘sandbox’ for products and pilot services, in order to ensure ex-ante joint validation.

7.4.

Best circular practices will be compiled, and consumers given a voice. Those practices with the greatest multiplier effects will be widely disseminated.

7.5.

Encouraging voluntary labelling that displays information on emission reduction, biodiversity conservation, resource efficiency or avoidance of components with a high environmental impact, with the aim of making its use compulsory. Labelling that estimates the lifespan of the product will be introduced, in relation to the possibility of obtaining spare parts and options for repair. Taking into account pressure from consumers, the extension of product warranty periods, through taxation and public procurement, will be encouraged, making use of official recognition, taxation and public procurement.

7.6.

As part of the New Deal for Consumers, redress mechanisms will be put in place for consumers who have purchased goods and products that were subject to premature obsolescence practices.

7.7.

The use of very short-term materials (e.g. single-use plastic) (22) and packaging of products will be monitored (23). Controls on chemicals will also be reinforced by applying a comprehensive approach, in order to prevent counter-productive recycling practices.

7.8.

Consumer information regarding environmental footprints that is accessible, legible and accurate. Bad practices that consist of making claims without sufficient empirical evidence will be monitored and, where appropriate, made public.

7.9.

Information campaigns for consumers — with a special focus on young people — relating to sustainable economic models of production and consumption, including a range of nudging strategies and taking into account cultural and idiosyncratic factors (24).

7.10.

Providing education programmes (continuously, from nursery school onwards) that examine the methodology of a product’s life-cycle (manufacturing of parts, modularity, durability, repairability, re-use and energy efficiency) from a cross-cutting perspective, and including a significant practical component.

7.11.

Expanding the sources of employment associated with re-use, repair and recycling activities with high added value (upcycling), as part of the Digital Single Market strategy (25).

7.12.

Ensuring that the relevant authorities, at their respective levels of responsibility, put adequate infrastructure and means in place for separate collection everywhere that waste is generated.

7.13.

Recognising municipalities, educational establishments, universities and other institutions that incorporate consumer participation protocols in their circular economy activities by means of bottom-up models.

7.14.

Developing and extending experience in the area of new economic models, preferably in connection with the sharing economy and the functional economy within a specific region, by means of protected designations of origin, and referred to as ‘circular municipalities’.

7.15.

Strengthening of the role of consumer associations in the circular economy by means of technical assistance and ad hoc resources.

7.16.

Publishing and disseminating businesses’ best practices with regard to the circular economy, closely monitored by consumer organisations.

7.17.

Promoting local consumption networks, prosumption and DIY activities.

Brussels, 17 July 2019.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Luca JAHIER


(1)  https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/sustainable-development-goals/goal-12-responsible-consumption-and-production.html

(2)  The circular economy was the main focus of discussions on the ILO conventions during the Civil Society Forum in Seoul in April 2018 on the EU-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

(3)  ILO Guidelines for a just transition towards environmentally sustainable economies and societies for all.

(4)  The EU Ecolabelling Board, in accordance with the product life-cycle methodology, is currently taking on board new circular indicators and criteria for product use and disposal.

(5)  See EESC opinion Sibiu and Beyond (OJ C 228, 5.7.2019, p. 37).

(6)  According to a Special Eurobarometer survey carried out in September-October 2017, environmental protection is either very important or fairly important to 94 % of Europeans, one of their main concerns being rising levels of waste. And 87 % either totally agree or tend to agree that they can play an important role.

(7)  See OJ C 230, 14.7.2015, p. 99; OJ C 264, 20.7.2016, p. 98; OJ C 389, 21.10.2016, p. 80; OJ C 345, 13.10.2017, p. 102; OJ C 283, 10.8.2018, p. 61; and OJ C 367, 10.10.2018, p. 97.

(8)  OJ C 88, 21.3.2017, p. 83.

(9)  COM(2015) 614 final.

(10)  See Directives 2014/23/EU, 2014/24/EU and 2014/25/EU.

(11)  European public procurement amounts to nearly 15 % of GDP.

(12)  COM(2018) 353 final, adopted in March 2019 by the co-legislators.

(13)  In March 2019 the co-legislators approved the taxonomy of sustainable activities.

(14)  The agreement reached by the European Parliament’s IMCO committee on defective products (February 2018), which was disappointing, has been followed by a more positive agreement: greater protection for online purchases, as well as the willingness to impose sanctions to address the issue of dual quality of food (April 2018).

(15)  OJ C 440, 6.12.2018, p. 66.

(16)  https://circulareconomy.europa.eu/platform/

(17)  http://ec.europa.eu/environment/industry/retail/about.htm

(18)  https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/flwp/

(19)  The H2020 PROMPT project is trialling a testing system for premature obsolescence and will make proposals to improve product lifetimes, including repairs. The consortium comprises consumer organisations such as ANEC/BEUC/ICRT and Test Achats, UFC Que Choisir, OCU, Stiftung Warentest, Consumentenbond, together with research institutes (TU Delft; Fraunhofer IZM) and repair organisations (RUSZ, Ifixit).

(20)  EESC opinion Listening to the citizens of Europe for a sustainable future (Sibiu and beyond) (OJ C 228, 5.7.2019, p. 37).

(21)  https://unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement

(22)  OJ C 62, 15.2.2019, p. 207.

(23)  This is often excessive and inappropriate as it is influenced by marketing strategies.

(24)  For example, in southern Europe ‘doggy bags’ are frowned upon.

(25)  See the final report ICT for Work: Digital Skills in the Workplace.


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