Circular Economy Action Plan: Is focus on consumerism and GDP growth a cause for concern?

Mick Wallace says EU’s fixation with growth ‘a massive problem’ in delivering radical economic change.
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By Mick Wallace

Mick Wallace (IE, GUE/NGL) is a shadow rapporteur of Parliament’s New Circular Economy Action Plan report

14 Oct 2020

Some of the language in the Circular Economy Action Plan worries me. It seems that Big Business will not really be reined in; instead, there is a lot of talk about “new opportunities” and “expanding markets”.

We need to tackle economic growth in order to solve our waste and climate crises. The Circular Economy Action Plan talks about additional GDP growth of 0.5 percent by 2030 and decoupling growth from resource extraction. I don’t think it’s possible to decouple growth from resource extraction.

Our fixation on growth is a massive part of the problem and I think we need radical, transformative changes to our economic system so that it is no longer based on GDP growth. This is not a fringe idea anymore; in fact, President Sassoli recently spoke about the need for alternatives to GDP.

Certainly, at the very least, we need to make a clear distinction between relative and absolute decoupling. The Action Plan also talks about “empowering consumers”. This kind of language is worrying.

We need to tackle consumerism, not promote a different greenwashed version of it. We need to limit economic production in many sectors and scale down consumerism. For example, why not actually introduce a ban on advertisements in public places?

I want to see a much greater emphasis on local and regional community-led production and consumption models. I want to see shorter supply chains. I want to see more emphasis on cooperatives.

The circular and sharing economies should not be dominated by Big Business. We need to focus on rights. It’s certainly positive that the Action Plan mentions a right to repair. But I want to see a guarantee of unrestricted access to information about repairs, maintenance and parts for everyone.

“Our fixation on growth is a massive part of the problem and I think we need radical, transformative changes to our economic system so that it is no longer based on GDP growth”

The right to repair should include unrestricted access to spare parts, software and security updates. We can’t allow manufacturers to create a monopoly on spares and repairs. Labels on products, such as a reparability score or a score for how long a product will last, for can be useful. But these shouldn’t be a substitute for genuinely binding, properly enforced regulation. We should make this clear to the Commission.

The Action Plan is very vague on the issue of premature or planned obsolescence. It doesn’t mention a potential ban on planned obsolescence, just consumer protection against it. France already has a ban on planned obsolescence. I would like to see an EU ban too.

The Action Plan also proposes to “build a stronger partnership with Africa to maximise the benefits of the green transition and circular economy”. Well, perhaps we could start by stopping the extraction of resources and money from the Global South by the Global North.

We should also be looking at the social issues in supply chains; the Action Plan doesn’t deal with due diligence. What are the social implications of these new circular business models?