The European Union has announced a new bundle of sustainability-focused policy proposals that will expand existing ecodesign rules on energy efficiency by encouraging longer product lifespans, supporting the growth of circular economy business models and helping consumers combat greenwashing and make more environmentally friendly purchasing choices, as regional lawmakers work to make good on a Circular Economy Action Plan announced two years ago.
The bloc’s overarching European Green Deal plan has the stated goal of making the region “climate neutral” by 2050.
That mission translates to no net emissions of greenhouse gases within a time frame of (now) just under three decades while decoupling the EU’s economic growth from resource use — aka a shift to a circular economy where products are designed to last longer and also to be easy to disassemble for reuse or recycling at end of life. So there is, very clearly, lots of work for policymakers to do.
Russia’s war in Ukraine has only added to the urgency of the EU’s climate mission — underscoring the case for the bloc to rapidly move away from using fossil fuels for energy and wider economic fuel as many Member States remain heavily reliant on oil and gas from Russia, leaving their economies exposed to the ongoing regional instability.
In a press release announcing its latest sustainability policy package, the Commission suggests that, by 2030, the revised ecodesign framework could lead to 132 mtoe [million tonnes of oil equivalent] of primary energy savings — which it emphasizes is “almost equivalent to EU’s import of Russian gas” (which corresponds to “roughly to 150 bcm [billion cubic meters] of natural gas”).
It is also keen to flag the value of existing EU ecodesign requirements (which are focused on energy efficiency) — saying they saved consumers €120 billion and led to a 10% lower annual energy consumption by the products in scope.
The latest proposals to slot under the EU’s “green deal” umbrella include an interesting idea for Digital Product Passports (see below) — which is part of a wider push to increase product sustainability via a Regulation on Ecodesign for Sustainable Products (aka ESPR). The latter sets new requirements to “make products more durable, reliable, reusable, upgradable, reparable, easier to maintain, refurbish and recycle, and energy and resource efficient”; and looks set to apply across the board from products such as metals and textiles all the way up to mobile phones and tablets.
“The objective of the Commission’s Ecodesign proposal is to make sustainable products the norm on the EU market and reduce their overall environmental and climate impacts,” the EU’s executive writes, adding: “The ‘take-make-use-dispose’ model can be avoided, and much of a product’s environmental impacts is determined at the design stage.”
The ecodesign proposal extends existing EU rules in this area to both broaden the scope of products covered by ecodesign regulations (the Commission says it wants almost all products to fall in scope in the future) and to broaden requirements on those products to encompass circularity and an overall reduction of products’ environmental and climate footprint, in addition to energy efficiency criteria.
So it’s fair to say that the bloc’s concept of ‘ecodesign’ is being radically redesigned — and, well, upgraded.
The Commission argues that this broader ecodesign strategy will lead to more energy and resource independence and less pollution, and also anticipates it creating “economic opportunities for innovation and job creation”, especially in areas such as remanufacturing, maintenance, recycling and repair. So hot European startups of the future could be in areas like smarter waste management and upcycling.
Specific per product requirements aren’t clear, as yet, as the EU’s approach starts with a big picture proposal for a framework and a process — via which the Commission (“working in close cooperation with all those concerned”) will gradually set out requirements for each product or group of products, yielding specific stipulations down the line.
Its approach also suggests there could end up being a degree of variability in requirements across different types of products, as various trade offs (perhaps product longevity vs energy efficiency of manufacture, say) are weighed up and variously assessed in each specific product context. (Variation may also creep in as a result of sector-specific lobbying ofc.)
“These ecodesign requirements will be tailored to the particular characteristics of the product groups concerned,” the Commission writes in a communication on the proposal. “Their identification and development will factor-in the potential for improvement and relative effectiveness in delivering increased resource and energy efficiency, enabling longer product life and maximising the value embedded in materials, reducing pollution and the overall impact of products on climate and the environment.”
In a list of sample ecodesign requirements which may apply to different types of products, the communication offers examples that include mandates to minimize waste (such as packaging waste); set a minimum level of recycled content that a product must contain; and require ease of disassembly, remanufacturing and recycling of products and materials, among others.
“Only a few sectors, such as food, feed, and medicinal products, are exempted,” the EU further specifies in a Q&A on the sustainable products initiative which also states that incoming ecodesign and labelling rules will cover product groups which are not regulated now, such as smartphones, tablets and photovoltaic solar systems.
So gadgets look set to fall squarely in scope, along with almost every other type of non-edible thing and/or material used to make things which may be picked up off a shelf by or dropshipped to an EU consumer in the future (not to mention the packaging itself).
Commenting in a statement, VirginijusSinkevičius, the EU commissioner for the environment, oceans and fisheries, said:
Our circular economy proposals kick off an era where products will be designed in a way that brings benefits to all, respects the boundaries of our planet and protects the environment. Giving a longer lifespan to the phones we use, to the clothes we wear and to many other products will save money for European consumers. And at the end of their life products will not be a source of pollution but of new materials for the economy, decreasing the dependency of European businesses on imports.
The Commission will launch a public consultation on the categories of products to be selected under the first ESPR working plan by the end of this year — but it suggests the first focus will be on product categories such as textiles, furniture, mattresses, tyres, detergents, paints, lubricants, and on intermediate products like iron, steel and aluminium, as it says these have “high environmental impact and potential for improvement”.
As the bloc expands ecodesign rules, repairability in general looks set to get a massive boost — again also for electronics, an area where the Commission already said (March 2020) it would be expanding requirements.
“Work has advanced significantly with assessing the feasibility of ecodesign requirements and an energy labelling scheme for mobile phones and tablets,” it notes in a communication on its Ecodesign and Energy Labelling Working Plan, adopted today as a transitory measure “to cover new energy-related products, update and increase the ambition for products that are already regulated” until the expanded ecodesign regulation enters into force.
“The requirements would be affecting energy efficiency as well as material efficiency (durability, reparability, upgradability and recycling) aspects. The regulations are expected to be adopted before the end of 2022,” it goes on, adding: “Likewise, work is well advanced to assess the feasibility of ecodesign requirements and energy labelling for solar photovoltaic modules, inverters and systems, including possible requirements on carbon footprint.”
Expanded EU ecodesign rules will apply equally to all products placed on the market, regardless of country of manufacture or importation, meaning gizmos made in Asia or the US that are intended for sale within the bloc won’t be able to escape compliance with the sustainability requirements.
A Digital Product Passport for every thing
Another part of the EU’s plan for revised ecodesign rules includes a proposal to introduce Digital Product Passports to store key data to improve traceability around products and support repair/recycling etc by standardizing the information which product manufacturers must provide.
The Commission also intends these passports to arm consumers with information on environmental impacts to inform purchasing decisions.
This could include energy consumption info but also — via new EU Energy Labels for relevant products — a repairability score.
“[P]roduct-specific information requirements will ensure consumers know the environmental impacts of their purchases,” the Commission suggests of the Digital Product Passport plan. “All regulated products will have Digital Product Passports. This will make it easier to repair or recycle products and facilitate tracking substances of concern along the supply chain. Labelling can be introduced as well.”
Digital product passports will be “the norm” for all products regulated under the ESPR, per the Commission — with the goal to ensure that products are “tagged, identified and linked to data relevant to their circularity and sustainability”.
“This proposal will… enable information requirements to be set for products to know more about the impacts of the products on our shelves and make more sustainable choices along the whole value chain,” it adds.
How exactly this will work isn’t clear but presumably something like a QR code could be fixed to each product for scanning to view the associated sustainability data.
“Digital Product Passports will be rolled out for all regulated products,” the Commission writes. “The product information can also take the form of ‘classes of performance’ — for instance ranging from ‘A to G’ — to facilitate comparison between products, possibly displayed in the form of a label. This would work in a manner similar to how the widely recognized EU Energy Label currently works, and be for instance used for a repairability score.”
The EU is also eyeing the potential for this standardized ‘metadata’ system to create other data-sharing opportunities — which could even lead to other types of business opportunity, or support additional pieces of sustainability legislation across the bloc.
“Pioneering this approach for environmental sustainability data can also pave the way for wider voluntary data sharing, going beyond the products and requirements regulated under the ESPR,” the Commission suggests. “Moreover, product passports may be used for information on other sustainability aspects applicable to the relevant product group pursuant to other Union legislation.”
“Structuring information on the environmental sustainability of products and transmitting it by means of digital product passports will help businesses along the value chain, from manufacturers, importers and distributors to dealers, repairers, remanufacturers and recyclers, to access information that is valuable in their work to improve environmental performance, prolong product lifetime, boost efficiency and the use of secondary raw materials, thus lowering the need for primary natural resources, saving costs and reducing strategic dependencies,” it also argues.
“This will also help track the presence of substances of concern throughout the life cycle of materials and products, following through on commitments made in the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability and contributing to the EU’s aim to achieve zero pollution. Digital product passports can also enable consumers to make more informed choices, improve transparency for public interest organisations and help national authorities in their enforcement and surveillance work.”
Other measures in the EU’s ecodesign expansion proposal seek to end the destruction of unsold consumer goods — a practice that can be disturbingly widespread in ecommerce (hi Amazon!) and fashion, for example — through “far-reaching transparency requirements for those choosing to discard unsold goods, and the possibility to ban their destruction for relevant product groups”.
“[L]arge businesses that discard unsold products will have to disclose their number per year, the reasons for the discarding and information on the amount of discarded products that they have delivered for preparing for re-use, remanufacturing, recycling, energy recovery and disposal operations in line with the waste hierarchy. They will have to ensure this information is made available, either on a freely accessible website, or via other means,” the Commission writes.
“This measure will apply to all concerned economic operators as soon as the regulation enters into force. The proposal explicitly prohibits circumvention techniques, such as a big company selling to small companies (which are normally exempted) to make them destroy products.”
Green public procurement will also be supported through mandatory criteria in the regulation.
In addition, the Commission has presented two targeted sectoral initiatives today — one focused on sustainability and circularity of textiles, with the strategy there intended to make textiles “more durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable, to tackle fast fashion, textile waste and the destruction of unsold textiles, and ensure their production takes place in full respect of social rights” by 2030; and another that aims to boost the internal market for construction products while also ensuring that the regulatory framework is geared towards sustainability and climate objectives.
Both sectors have high carbon footprints.