Fore Thinking

How to understand if a product or service is actually ecological?

Every consumer has the right to know which products are truly sustainable and which are not. For this reason, in March 2022 the European Commission proposed a system to protect EU consumers and to allow them to actively contribute to the green transition. Among the beneficiaries of these rules there will also be companies that implement real sustainable changes: only in this way will they be able to increase their sales rather than having to face unfair competition.

According to a 2020 study on European attitudes towards the environment, 94% of Europeans consider it very important to protect the environment and 68% agree that current consumption habits negatively affect global and European ecosystems.

For consumers to be protected, there is a need for reliable and verifiable information. However, currently, companies operating in the European Union often issue voluntary environmental claims with little evidence to prove them. A 2020 Commission research found that 53.3% of the claims it examined were vague, misleading or unsubstantiated, and 40% were completely unsubstantiated.

This has generated a number of unfair commercial practices, such as:

  • greenwashing practices, a process whereby products and services sold are presented as more environmentally friendly than they actually are;
  • planned obsolescence practices, i.e. premature failure of assets;
  • the use of sustainability labels and unreliable and non-transparent information tools.

These methods have led to widespread skepticism among consumers, for which it is necessary to restore order and balance.

How will the initiative protect consumers from greenwashing?

This proposal aims to help generate a circular, clean and green EU economy by ensuring the dissemination of reliable information about the environmental declarations of products and services. This will allow consumers to make informed purchasing decisions and thus contribute to greater consumption sustainability.

More precisely, this proposal aims to:

  • information is provided on the existence of a commercial durability guarantee from the manufacturer for all types of goods, or on the absence of such a guarantee in the case of energy using goods;
  • information is provided on the availability of free software updates for all goods comprising digital items, digital content and digital services;
  • information on the repairability of products is provided, through a repairability index or other repair information, where available, for all types of goods;
  • professionals do not mislead consumers about the environmental and social impacts, durability and reparability of products;
  • the professional can submit an environmental statement asserting future environmental performance only when this involves clear commitments;
  • the trader cannot advertise as benefits to consumers what is considered common practice in the relevant market;
  • the professional can compare the products, also through a sustainability information tool, only if he provides information on the method of comparison, on the products and suppliers involved and on the measures taken to keep the information updated;
  • the display of a sustainability label that is not based on a certification system or is not established by public authorities is prohibited;
  • the use of generic environmental claims in marketing activities aimed at consumers is prohibited, where the excellence of the environmental performance of the product or the trader cannot be demonstrated, depending on the claim, in accordance with Regulation (EC) No. 66/2010 (EU Ecolabel), an ecological certification system officially recognized in the Member States or other applicable Union legislation;
  • the submission of an environmental statement concerning the product as a whole when in reality it concerns only a certain aspect is prohibited;
  • it is forbidden to present requirements imposed by law on the Union market for all products belonging to a given category as if they were a distinctive feature of the professional’s offer;
  • certain practices linked to the premature obsolescence of assets are prohibited.

Furthermore, the proposal for common standards promoting the repair of goods (adopted on 22 March 2023) will also contribute to sustainable consumption, through a series of measures that will promote and motivate consumers to repair products.

Claims covered and not covered by this proposal

The proposed directive on environmental self-claims covers environmental self-claims submitted by companies claiming a positive environmental impact, a minor negative impact, no impact or an improved impact over time of their product, service or organizational practice. Following this proposal, the companies themselves will have to justify and demonstrate their declarations.

It only covers claims that are not currently regulated by other EU rules, for example it excludes the EU Ecolabel as existing EU legislation already guarantees the reliability of such regulated claims.

The proposal also concerns environmental brands, with a number of around 230 brands, causing considerable confusion among consumers. Based on this consideration, no new public labeling schemes will be allowed, unless they are developed at EU level.

What are the expected and hoped effects?

With the introduction of this common set of rules within the EU internal market, there will be an important competitive advantage for all those companies that really take steps to develop environmentally friendly products, services and organizational practices.

The proposal should also help reduce the risk of legal fragmentation of the single market, easing costs for companies whose declarations are certified by an accredited verifier. Harmonized and clear rules will reduce costs for businesses operating cross-border within the internal market and enhance the credibility of our industries outside the EU.

The proposals presented therefore represent fundamental points for the realization of the circular economy, defined in the action plan for the circular economy.

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