The EU’s ecodesign policy has a PR problem

Slice of burnt toast in a toaster machine

Toasters have been in the news again this week, with more controversy, and more delays to the long awaited ecodesign working plan from the European Commission.

The plan will cover the next group of energy related products to be given an innovation boost through ecodesign policies, which drive up energy efficiency standards, rewards market leaders and takes inefficient products off the market. Ecodesign has been one of the EU’s most successful policies: it is already saving each European household €330 per year, and will deliver 40 per cent of the EU’s 2020 energy savings target.But despite the benefits, the European Commission has never succeeded in communicating the value of the policy. Instead, it has backed away from naming new products it will regulate. It delayed its working plan for six months ahead of the UK referendum earlier this year, in fear of how British tabloid newspapers would react. Even after the referendum, the commission has continued to keep a low profile. The delays have turned into a farce: the working plan, which was due to cover activity between 2015 and 2017 now looks like it might not start until next year.

‘Too intrusive’
This week the College of Commissioners met, and ecodesign was on the agenda again. Pre-meeting coverage focused on a leaked proposal to remove household goods such as toasters and hair dryers from the list, in the face of apparent concerns that using ecodesign to improve consumer goods is ‘too intrusive’, notwithstanding their positive impact on the environment and consumer bills.

Despite the backpedaling, the commission has delayed again. The unofficial word is that the commissioners will discuss the issue again in two weeks time. It is clear that this decision is being taken at the highest level, with President Juncker himself getting involved, amidst fears that new proposals may provide ammunition for attacks by eurosceptics.

The commission has experienced such criticism in the past, not least when regulation that made vacuum cleaners more effective and efficient led to ‘hoovergate’: a series of critical articles in the UK press about EU overreach. The fact that the result was vacuum cleaners that were better at picking up dust, and used less energy doing so, was largely ignored.

What is different about this proposed list is that it is the first time that the commission plans to act to improve resource efficiency, as well as energy efficiency. This makes the potential gains even bigger: we can not only save money, but have longer lasting, more easily repairable products.

It also provides a new communications opportunity for the commission.

Whilst energy efficiency has delivered huge savings for European consumers, people simply don’t feel the immediate gain: they don’t associate changes in their annual energy bills to improvements in product performance, particularly when other factors, such as variations in energy cost, make this more difficult to isolate.

Consumers want better quality products
But the experience of products that break too soon, and of being told that replacement is cheaper than repair, is sadly all too familiar for many of us. It is frustrating to be told that a washing machine is too difficult to repair, or that a mobile phone screen can only be repaired by the manufacturer. And consumers may fear that, without government intervention, there are few incentives for manufacturers to make their products last longer if they can simply sell us a new one instead. Getting a longer life out of every day products is an easily communicated win, with a more direct impact on the consumer.

By introducing rules that improve the quality of our products, the EU can promote energy and resource efficiency at the same time. And the benefits of greater durability and repairability are clearly apparent for consumers. Green Alliance will shortly be publishing a study showing how simple changes to everyday products can make them last longer and be easier to fix if they do go wrong. We will launch this at event in Brussels on November 9, when we will challenge the European Commission to back their ecodesign policies, and unblock the publication of a new work programme.

The EU’s ecodesign policy is broken: let’s fix it, and cut out those broken products at the same time.

2 comments

  • “…the benefits of greater durability and repairability are clearly apparent for consumers” In which case, if true, consumers will flock towards those products. No Directive necessary.

  • If the market worked perfectly, yes, and energy labelling does deliver this kind of pull mechanism. But ecodesign addresses market deficiencies with a push mechanism that has taken the lowest performers off the market. I think both are required.

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