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5 things to know about the EU’s plan to make shopping greener

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From the newest washing machine to the latest must-have dress, in a decade’s time products will be greener by design — or at least, that’s the EU’s plan.

The European Commission on Wednesday presented its Sustainable Products Initiative, a long-awaited component of the EU Green Deal aimed at overhauling how products are made and reducing both energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposal, it argues, has only become more urgent thanks to soaring energy prices and the war in Ukraine. Savings related to greener design will be money “we did not pay to the Russian military budget,” said Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, referring to the bloc’s dependence on Russia for energy imports.

The measures would save 26 billion cubic meters of gas every year — about 20 percent of the bloc’s imports from Russia, according to the Commission.

The EU executive also published its strategy for a more sustainable textiles industry, new anti-greenwashing measures and greener rules for construction materials.

We break down how Brussels plans to revamp the shopping experience.

1. Green product design

In its new proposal, Brussels aims to do more than simply improve products’ energy efficiency. Now goods will have to be designed to last longer and be easier to upgrade, repair, refurbish and recycle.

Those changes could have a big impact, as over 80 percent of a product’s environmental impact is determined at the design phase.

The new rules will apply to a wide range of consumer goods produced and imported into the EU — including smartphones, tablets, solar panels, heating and cooling appliances — positioning the bloc as an international standards-setter on sustainability.

The proposal doesn’t include detailed requirements for each product group — those will be set out in delegated acts once the Commission has performed impact assessments.

That’s already meeting with pushback. The European People’s Party MEP Jessica Polfjärd warned that the Commission risks “micromanaging” industries, while Paolo Falcioni, director general of the industry association representing home appliances manufacturers, said he’s wary of “burdensome regulations” that could hamper the “proven efficiency” of ecodesign rules.

2. Stop companies destroying unsold products

The Commission wants companies to adopt a new motto: Donate, don’t destroy.

The idea is for a potential EU-wide ban on the destruction of unsold goods, something that’s already in place in France. As a first step, the Commission wants companies to publicly disclose the number of unsold items they destroy each year.

Such information will be “a very effective reputational disincentive” for businesses, Sinkevičius argued.

Environmental group ECOS complained that SMEs are exempt from this requirement even though they “make up a large part of the EU economy” and questioned the “true impact” of the measure.

The Commission said it plans to look at product categories and decide if they should be covered by such a ban.

3. Become the sustainable fashion police

The Commission is eyeing your wardrobe too. In 2020, textile consumption had on average the fourth-highest impact on climate change in Europe and the third-highest on water and land use.

“By 2030 textiles placed on the market should be long-lived and recyclable, made, to a large extent, of recycled fibers free of hazardous substances,” said Sinkevičius. “We want fast fashion [to] get out of fashion.”

While the Commission’s Textiles Strategy — a communication laying out Brussels’ vision for a more sustainable textiles industry — doesn’t propose new binding sustainability targets or measures, the sector will be a key target in efforts to overhaul ecodesign rules.

The strategy also points to future legislation, including upcoming EU rules on extended producer responsibility for textiles and “economic incentives” to make products more sustainable under the revision of the Waste Framework Directive slated for 2023. A study is underway, it adds, on “mandatory targets for preparing for re-use and recycling of textile waste.” 

The industry isn’t thrilled about the idea.

The regulation has an “overwhelming ambition,” according to EURATEX, an association representing the European textile and clothing industry. Shoddy implementation could result in “a complete collapse of the European textile value chain under the burden of restrictions, requirements, costs and unlevel playing field.”

But Greens MEP Anna Cavazzini called on the Commission to do more, saying it should incentivize reduced material use with measures like a tax on virgin materials.

4. Harness purchasing power

Also in Brussels’ line of fire: greenwashing.

With its proposal on “empowering consumers for the green transition,” the Commission wants to oust “generic environmental claims” used in marketing — like “environmentally friendly,” “eco-friendly” and “green” — if a product’s environmental performance can’t be demonstrated through the EU Ecolabel or other national and EU-wide laws.

The text also bans companies from marketing their products with sustainability labels that aren’t established by a certification scheme or public authorities. Companies would have to tell consumers if a software update risks “negatively” impacting digital goods.

Once the proposal is incorporated into national legislation, consumers would be able to apply for remedies if they find a company breached the new rules. 

While the proposal is “encouraging … the devil is in the details,” Monique Goyens, director of the European Consumer Organisation BEUC, said in an emailed statement.

She said she hopes the Commission’s so-called green claims initiative — originally scheduled for Wednesday but pushed back until June — will “fill in the blanks” and suggested that brands should be made to use a pre-approval process for green claims.

That’s not likely to go down well with companies. Eva Schneider from the European Brands Association warned that a pre-approval system would mean it would take companies “a really long time to be able to make any green claims.”

5. Change business models

Brussels expects its initiative to encourage new circular business models like leasing, renting and developing services like refurbishment and repair.

“Increasingly businesses should offer [goods] as a service rather than as owning a product,” said EU Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans.

But that’s likely to take time and industries are pushing back hard against legislation aimed at increasing products’ lifespan.

U.S. tech giant Apple has been resisting a push to introduce a common charger in the EU, which would force it to redesign its smartphones and adopt a USB-C charging port in place of its proprietary Lightning port.

Some industries have been able to negotiate voluntary agreements with the Commission to improve the design and sustainability of their products in return for escaping regulation. That’s the case for video game consoles and printers.

It’s a loophole green group ECOS said should have been dropped from the Commission’s ecodesign policies.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

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