Stimulating better personal environmental performance

Stimulating better personal environmental performance

The EU Action Plan on sustainable production and consumption aims at enabling citizens to make greener choices that will ultimately improve their personal environmental performance

The European Commission is targeting the consumer behaviour of citizens with the intention of improving their personal environmental performance. Consumer practices are a major element of the EU Action Plan to foster sustainable production and consumption announced in July 2008. This initiative builds on a number of Directives and programmes which themselves strive to help citizens improve their energy consumption and environmental performance.

The predominance of references to the environmental behaviour and consumption of citizens in recent EU programmes and initiatives highlights the significant role this issue will play in the coming years. It was also a point highlighted in the October 2008 ETAP Forum on emerging technologies.

Targeting citizens and producers alike

European Consumer Commissioner Meglena Kuneva gave an overview of the new Action Plan at the European symposium ‘Can carbon labelling help Europeans live more sustainably?’ in Manchester, England in October 2008. She explained how the Plan would increase the environmental performance of citizens and producers alike. Consumer policy, like all other elements of European society, had to address the question of climate change, she pointed out. Just as this issue had caused behavioural changes in industry and trade, so too must consumption patterns change to ensure a sustainable future.

The EU Action Plan to foster sustainable production and consumption is a groundbreaking initiative, and places sustainability at the centre of European policy. It is an attempt to stimulate a consumer policy that can secure a sustainable future for all. Food and drink, as well as housing and private transport, contribute a mammoth 70 to 80% of all environmental pressures. For this reason, a shift in consumption patterns is needed to halt the depletion of resources, and the increase in negative environmental impacts.

The Action Plan aims to stimulate a major behavioural change among consumers, producers and the markets. In terms of how the social habits of individual citizens can be altered to increase environmental performance, the overall improvement of information to aid responsible decision making is seen as a the first step in the right direction.

In addition to empowering consumers through better information and education, the Commission has outlined two other key lines of action in relation to consumer policy. It hopes firstly to enhance consumer welfare by promoting development of higher quality products, and secondly to initiate working partnerships between consumers and producers.

Better information and education

Empowering consumers is a key element of the EU Consumption Strategy for 2007-13. The Commission recognises that the most direct way to improve the choices consumers make, and in turn their environmental performance, is through better labelling and advertising relating to the energy consumption and environmental performance of products.

The EU Energy Label Directive has enjoyed real success since its inception, and has achieved 85 to 90% levels of public awareness in Member States. The mandatory A to G labels inform consumers of the energy efficiency and consumption ratings of domestic appliances, particularly white goods. This system has prompted citizens to become more conscious of the energy and environmental performances of their household appliances, something the Action Plan hopes to build upon.

The Plan proposes to extend the range of products subject to the mandatory labelling scheme, even going so far as to include products that indirectly impact on energy consumption. Items such as water-consuming devices and windows do not require energy directly but are nevertheless contributors to energy waste. Mandatory insulation ratings on windows, in terms of energy waste, could help consumers curtail excessive consumption and cut energy bills.

Moving benchmarks ensure predictability for business

In addition, the Action Plan calls for the strengthening of the EU Ecolabel or ‘flower’ logo, the stamp of excellence that is given to environmentally-friendly products. An expansion of this system to include more products would ultimately widen the range of choices for consumers. Equally, the Commission believes that by increasing the number of products covered, and decreasing the costs of the system, more manufacturers would be motivated to go beyond minimum environmental performance standards. By broadening the reach of the Ecolabel, the Action Plan will be enabling consumers to make greener choices.

As everyday consumer products have a significant environmental impact, an improvement in their eco-performance would have massive benefits. The established Eco-Design Directive has set mandatory energy and resource efficiency standards for energy-using products. However, as with Energy Labels, the Action Plan proposes that the scope of the Eco-Design Directive be extended to include energy-related products.

Furthermore, by encouraging a commitment on the part of Member States and the EU institutions to follow a policy of green public procurement, the resulting shift in the nature of the goods and services market could prompt consumers to follow suite.

Partnerships with business

Better information and higher quality goods could help consumers improve their personal environmental performance, but the likelihood of this would be greatly increased through closer consumer-retailer partnerships. The Action Plan asserts that by providing smart choices to consumers, retailers can encourage an immediate change in consumer behaviour.

The Action Plan proposes the creation of a Retailers Forum, with the intention of urging producers and retailers to increase the environmental performance of their supply chains and production systems. Environmental improvements in the supply chain could then be passed down to the consumer, opening up their green choices. The European consumer organisation BEUC has made sustainability a priority, and collaboration with a Retailers Forum could lead to better environmental performance all round.

It appears as though improving the personal environmental performance of EU citizens is an issue that will remain a high priority for the foreseeable future. The EU Action Plan, and the Directives it aims to build upon are but a small indication of the commitment to this cause. While previous initiatives have focused on the responsibilities of businesses and public authorities, increasingly steps are being made to stimulate a societal change in environmental performance. The Swedish government has stated that its Presidency of the Union, in the second half of 2009, will place the promotion of sustainable consumption high on the agenda.

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