Ecodesign is a huge environmental success story, it should be expanded

At the risk of being uncool, I get very excited about ecodesign. Specifically, I have great enthusiasm for what it, together with energy labelling, has achieved and what it could do in future. It has been one of the most effective policies at improving environmental outcomes, at the same time as benefiting consumers and driving product innovation. It’s the reason why so many of our everyday appliances are so much more effective at what they do than they used to be. By the most conservative of estimates (the ones produced by the UK government), these measures save the average household £100 a year and cut the UK’s emissions by eight million tonnes of CO2 equivalent in a year.

This year, as part of our work for the Circular Economy Task Force, we wanted to know what other stakeholders thought about ecodesign. We interviewed environmental NGOs, trade associations, standard setting bodies and manufacturers, amongst others. Their anonymised responses are revealed today in our new report, Design for a circular economy: reducing the impacts of the products we use.

Stakeholders across the board praise ecodesign
This survey revealed widespread, deep admiration for the process and what it has achieved. Here are some of the things our interviewees said:

  • On its achievements, one environmental NGO said: “You just need to look at the numbers. Ecodesign is one of the strongest measures we’ve seen… in terms of addressing our climate and energy efficiency goals.”
  • On the product innovation it has inspired, a UK based manufacturer said: “Most vacuum cleaner manufacturers were making vacuum cleaners two kilowatts, three kilowatts because there was a perception that the customer will pay more the greater power you put on the label, but that was completely false… Now, we’re making machines at 900 watts or less with the same performance as the machines made prior to ecodesign.”
  • On the robust and consistent lifecycle approach that is supported by stakeholder consensus and has led to energy savings, an environmental NGO said: “The measures are not just taken out of pure fantasy from the lawmakers, but are based on specific methods that are replicated for all the measures.”

Poor enforcement is leading to unnecessary carbon emissions
But what was also clear from our research is that this powerful policy tool has the scope to go much further. For instance, market surveillance is the definite weak point. It was universally condemned, both in reference to the UK situation and that of our EU counterparts. It is estimated that up to a quarter of products on the market do not meet the minimum requirements, with one UK trade association expressing frustration that they “undertake more market surveillance… than the government does”.

This lack of regulatory enforcement means that consumers are still being exposed to shoddy products when they shouldn’t be, and good businesses risk being undercut by their cowboy competitors. This situation has led to unnecessary annual emissions of 800,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent, equivalent to the emissions from 623,599 typical cars. It is also a particular worry as we enter another lockdown where people will be even more reliant on technology to connect with others and for online shopping, where substandard products are even more of a problem.

The neglected challenge of resource efficiency
The other big question around ecodesign is why it only applies to energy efficiency. Although householders and businesses are saving energy when products are being used, the products aren’t necessarily lasting as long as they should. They’re usually difficult to repair, leading to them prematurely ending up on the waste pile. And we’re getting through them at an alarming and unsustainable rate. In fact, the UK is one of the worst offenders, generating more electronic waste per head than any country in the world, apart from Norway.

Short lifespans are especially worrying for products like phones and other IT equipment, where the vast majority of their environmental impacts occur during production; this makes durability and repairability very important. Research PwC carried out for us showed that extracting the 75g of metals needed to make a typical smartphone requires at least 6.5kg of ore to be mined. Other research has shown that the process also emits 60kg of CO2 equivalent, which is more than 300 times the weight of the phone itself, and it uses 160 baths worth of water. Altogether, PwC estimated that the phones produced for the UK market in 2019 required mining through ore equal to the weight of 7,281 double decker buses; used enough water to fill 72,477 Olympic sized swimming pools and resulted in CO2e emissions equal to the annual emissions from 664,132 typical cars. And that’s just for phones, and just for one year.

The chance to keep improving product performance
Clearly, something needs to be done about this, and the ecodesign process is an established and effective way to tackle it. In fact, the EU has already asked its three standard setting bodies (of which the British Standards Institution remains a part) to produce a suite of material efficiency standards.

To create a standard for something you have to measure it, so this has to be the first step in bringing standards in. They should cover how durable, upgradeable and repairable products are, as well as component reuse and recycled material and critical raw material content. Digital records in the form of ‘product passports’ could then be used to store all the information in one place. This would be a great step in supporting the shift to a circular economy.

The UK government has promised to “match or where economically practicable exceed” what the EU does on ecodesign. We think that’s absolutely spot on as there are plenty of opportunities to expand this successful approach to benefit UK consumers and businesses. It should apply to more items and to other impacts beyond energy efficiency; and a lot more attention should be given to the systemic changes – the logistics, infrastructure and business models – needed to keep well designed products in use as long as possible.

In our next report for the Circular Economy Task Force, we will be considering how ecodesign principles can be applied at the systems level as a solid basis for a truly resource efficient economy. My excitement is building already…

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