Not just bans – product policies for more climate-friendly consumption in the EU

Televisions, washing machines and the like: when buying a new household appliance there are a number of factors to consider, such as price, appearance and the impact on the climate. The buyer can find information about many of these things. Key features, such screen size or the number of wash programmes are usually evident from a look at the appliance itself. This is not the case with total energy consumption.

Often consumers cannot find out how much energy has been used in the manufacture of the product and how much more it will consume during use, or they obtain the information only after thorough research. Furthermore, appliances with a low upfront price often cause large electricity bills in day-to-day use. Both the wallet and the environment suffer, when total costs are assessed.

Standards set by policy-makers strengthen consumer rights …

The example shows that consumers do not know enough about the hidden qualities and negative impacts of many products – economists call this a “classic market failure”. State intervention is the means of choice for re-establishing the information balance. The European Union decided to formulate compulsory minimum standards for energy-using appliances within the eurozone and to impose them, in combination with an energy label.

… and protect the environment and climate

The objective was firstly to remove the worst appliances from the market and secondly to ensure more transparency in the showroom and inform consumers not only about costs, but also about impacts of products on the environment and climate. After all, all products have such impacts; private consumption accounts for approximately a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Often a lot of water is used in the manufacture of goods, and many appliances are not recyclable.

Establishing principles: the EU’s EuP Directive

Therefore, in an initial concrete step, calculations and information on the entire life-cycle – i.e. from manufacture through use to disposal – were produced for energy-using appliances. Energy efficiency classifications from A to G on the products themselves made this information easy to see and understand. This labelling has been in place since 1992 – now it is being updated and extended to new appliances. This system was supplemented in 2005 by the European Union’s Directive establishing a framework for the setting of ecodesign requirements for energy-using products (EuP Directive), which makes it possible to set minimum requirements for energy-using appliances. The Directive’s provisions apply to both manufacturers and importers; they create a level playing field for domestically produced and imported goods.

Preparatory studies gather information

In order to formulate the minimum requirements for the efficiency of energy-using products, the European Commission appointed various research institutes to carry out preparatory studies. These were to examine the existing potential for saving energy, the economic viability of requirements for the manufacturers and other possible aspects of consumer protection that need to be taken into account.

The Oeko-Institut was involved in several of these preparatory studies, for example, on commercially used washing machines and dishwashers. Our researchers compiled environmental and economic data, observed the buying behaviour of procurement staff, analysed the best appliances in each class and suggested improvements in the product categories.

Today there are already voluntary agreements and draft or final regulations for more than forty product groups. They range from everyday items such as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and tumble driers to industrial pumps, office and street lighting and industrial combustion plants.

Stakeholders can contribute specific perspectives

In a second step, the European Commission invites stakeholder groups and representatives of member states to discuss the findings and assess their implementation on the market. Environmental organisations, industry associations and consumer groups meet at stakeholder conferences and contribute their views.

The Oeko-Institut provides technical/methodological advice to ANEC and BEUC, the European organisations for the protection of consumer rights, to help them draft their submissions on individual products. In future the institute will also support the Federal Environment Agency with technical background information.

Ecodesign – what next?

However, apart from “energy-using products” many other items also have impacts on the environment. There are those that do not themselves use energy, yet affect the energy consumption of other products or consume resources, such as insulating materials and windows. The EU’s new work plan covers these as well, under the heading “energy-relevant products”.

In addition it would be desirable for the requirements of the EuP Directive to be more ambitious in the future. Furthermore, they should analyse other aspects beyond energy consumption relevant to the whole life-cycle – for example, the use of harmful substances and the issue of whether and how resources such as water are used efficiently. After all, this is the only way the minimum requirements can measure up to ambitious environmental targets.

Consumer information: accessing data online and elsewhere

How can consumers find their way around the maze of products? How do they identify products that are “valuable” from a sustainability point of view? There is guidance available in the media and at information portals such as the Oeko-Institut’s EcoTopTen. Criteria such as resource conservation and climate change are also taken into account in awarding the “Blue Angel” eco-label. Finally, anyone interested can obtain advice from organisations such as the product testing foundation Stiftung Warentest or comparison websites such as www.label-online.de