Making the European Single Market more sustainable

Built-in obsolescence is one of the many barriers to delivering a genuine circular economy; enshrining the right to repair is essential, says David Cormand.
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By David Cormand

David Cormand (FR, Greens/EFA) is rapporteur for the European Parliament's 'Towards a more sustainable single market for business and consumers' report.

23 Nov 2020

The European single market is the world’s largest trade bloc and a global standard setter. The COVID-19 crisis makes this even more apparent. However, it is clear that a powerful single market needs to be both sustainable and resilient in order to face today’s challenges. This is the purpose of the Sustainable Single Market own-initiative report that I had the honour to lead.

Current market rules are not working; they do not guarantee the protection of our environment, they are not reducing growing inequalities, nor are they enhancing the economic power of our businesses. We need to dispel the myth that individual consumers or companies should bear the burden of the green transition. It is our role, as regulators, to ensure that that the market rules are fair and sustainable by design.

Currently, they favour those companies that capitalise on waste, consumer deception, the destruction of our ecosystems as well as poor quality and cheap products. We have to think holistically about what is needed for our European market to be sustainable and aligned with the ambition of the Green Deal.

“Securing a genuine right to repair is the key to a sustainable market and a circular economy”

Sustainability will not be achieved through sporadic, unrelated actions; rather, it needs to adopt a systematic approach. We should ask ourselves: ‘what are our priorities as Europeans?’. This report aims to deliver the regulatory conditions for sustainable businesses to thrive, empowering the consumer in their purchasing and achieving a true circular economy.

First, we need to guarantee accurate and comparable information. Perfect information should be the first rule of a well-functioning market in economic models. How do you expect consumers to make a sustainable choice if they are not properly informed on the durability of products and services? We need to ensure that the information at the time of the purchase is valid and easily understandable. This is why we want to introduce mandatory labelling on the sustainability and reparability of products.

Mandatory and harmonised indications are essential for guiding consumers sustainably in their choices, and to reward those sustainable businesses that invest in durable practices. Sustainability has become a key factor for consumers in Europe, and as such has become a marketing argument. Advertisements needs to shine a light on the durable nature of products and services, rather than trying to deceive those consumers that are looking for these properties. In particular, green claims need to be regulated to ensure that they are founded in reality and non-misleading.

The greatest proportion of the environmental impact of products happens during their manufacturing: for example, more than 80 percent of the environmental impact of a smartphone comes from its production phase. It is therefore urgent to ensure that products are long-lasting, so we do not have to constantly produce replacements. Indeed, the issue of premature obsolescence in Europe has become urgent.

Despite our technological progress, one cannot fail to notice that many manufactured goods do not last as long as one would expect them, never mind as long as they used to. Washing machines from the 1960s often lasted for 30 years or more, while current models last maybe five. The existing rules do not reward those manufacturers that design long-lasting products.

Instead, it encourages cheap and easily breakable ones that are impossible to repair, that suffocate the good products and producers who create innovation in sustainability. This is a systemic problem that is leading us to a waste economy. Adding premature obsolescence to the list of unfair commercial practices would guide companies into sustainable designs and ensure that there is recourse against those that do not invest in our future. These are the conditions that will ensure a level playing field for all actors.

We can already witness promising business models based around vintage and second-hand markets, and at least 77 percent of Europeans would prefer to repair a device than buy a new one. The problem now is that there are so many obstacles to repairing a product. The repair costs may be virtually the same as buying a new product, or the spare parts required no longer exist; repairers struggle to gain access to essential spare parts.

“We need to dispel the myth that individual consumers or companies should bear the burden of the green  transition”

We need to set the correct incentives to ensure that repair becomes easy. This extends to standardising spare parts, ensuring they are affordable and available, including to independent repairers and consumers. Securing a genuine right to repair is the key to a sustainable market and a circular economy.

We are uniquely positioned in the European Parliament to address this systematic problem of poor quality of products. We can mainstream good practices into standards and ensure a unified approach at EU level. This would also allow us to boost the competitiveness of our European companies. Durable products and services are, in a word, good for the people, good for the planet and good for sustainable businesses.