Attractive, functional – and efficient?!

Ecodesign directive can set new standards for product design in the 21st century

Ecodesign directive can set new standards for product design in the 21st century

Products should be aesthetic, functional and value for money. And in future they will need to be something more besides, because they will need to meet new minimum standards for energy consumption. The EU has paved the way for this with its EuP Directive setting ecodesign requirements for energy-using products (or “ecodesign directive”). In July it approved a first regulation designed to limit electricity losses when office and household appliances are left in standby mode. But this is only the first step.

“The ecodesign directive has kick-started a knowledge-based and transparent process that can lead to greater energy efficiency in a large number of product areas”, says Kathrin Graulich of the Öko-Institut. “It represents a major opportunity for ensuring that from now on manufacturers will be obliged to stop producing energy-wasting appliances and to replace them with systems that are more climate-friendly.” And her colleague Dr. Bettina Brohmann adds: “All in all this is an exemplary policy approach.” The two of them should know: together with other experts at the Öko-Institut they are closely involved in the Energy-using Products (EuP) process.

This is how the Öko-Institut comes to be co-author of two of the preparatory studies that have been carried out in connection with the ecodesign directive; in all, 20 such studies have been carried out in different parts of the EU. For each product group the preparatory studies scientifically evaluate which requirements and criteria are technically possible and which are most environmentally friendly. The analysis covers the entire life cycle, involving production, use and disposal. In practical terms this means that product planners must consider the environmental burdens of each phase of the product’s life in their design decisions. The preparatory studies provide the Commission with a basis for specifying compulsory minimum standards.

Interested parties – which include industry, trades, commerce, environmental associations and consumer organizations – will then have the opportunity to comment on the proposals in consultation forums. The Öko-Institut has been commissioned by the EU to advise the European consumer organizations BEUC, ANEC and ICRT in the EuP process, so that they can participate on a well-informed basis.

The ecodesign directive focuses on the mass market. It covers products that are sold in large numbers, are particularly relevant to the environment and offer considerable scope for improvement. The range extends from boilers to computers and televisions, from household appliances to lighting. In principle the directive aims to ensure that the overall environmental impacts of energy-using devices are kept as low as possible. “At present, however, the focus is very much on improving energy consumption”, concedes Dr. Bettina Brohmann. And in practice the process is not without its difficulties. These include methodological issues, such as deciding how the individual product groups can be distinguished from each other or whether the proposed limits are appropriate.

The strength of the stakeholders’ influence also varies. “The large companies that dominate the market have the human resources and financial capacity to represent their own interests very effectively”, is Dr. Bettina Brohmann’s critical assessment of the situation. At the same time small and medium-sized companies are revealing how difficult it is for them to get involved in the process. And because deadlines are extremely tight, it is difficult for consumer organizations to prepare a coordinated response within the time available.

Coordination with other legislative processes is also important, for example with the revision of the energy efficiency labelling scheme or implementation of the EU Buildings Directive. It is also necessary to decide what process should be used in setting ambitious limits. Is the system dynamic or rigid? Are the worst performers simply removed or is the process repeatedly reoriented on the basis of what is technologically possible? These questions will need to be answered differently for different product groups.

And what is from one point of view a strength of this policy approach could at the same time entail a risk: precisely because the process is highly participative, the result could be agreement at the level of the lowest common denominator. This is why Kathrin Graulich and Dr. Bettina Brohmann urge that “the top priority must therefore be ambitious minimum standards. If that fails, we won’t just have wasted an enormous amount of time, we shall also have squandered a major opportunity for achieving greater efficiency and sustainability”.


Kathrin Graulich
Öko-Institut e.V.
Freiburg Office
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