11.9.2009   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 218/46


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy Action Plan

COM(2008) 397 final

2009/C 218/10

On 16 July 2008, the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy Action Plan

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 28 January 2009. The rapporteur was Mr ESPUNY MOYANO.

At its 451st plenary session, held on 25 and 26 February 2009 (meeting of 25 February), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion with 104 votes in favour and two abstentions.

1.   Conclusions and recommendations

1.1

The EESC welcomes the Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy Action Plan presented by the Commission, which includes the proposal to develop a range of new measures and amend a number of legislative provisions. The EESC has on a number of previous occasions affirmed its commitment to sustainable development as a means of achieving environmental, economic and social development in the European Union.

1.2

The Committee wishes to emphasise both how vulnerable companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are in the current economic and financial crisis and also the need to ensure that the Action Plan is implemented in a manner that enhances efficiency and business competitiveness. The Plan should also help to revitalise the economy whilst at the same time promoting sustainable production and consumption.

1.3

The Action Plan proposed by the Commission suffers to some extent from a lack of clarity as regards content and scope. These uncertainties should be cleared up as quickly as possible so that the plan can be implemented smoothly and the economic sectors concerned can assess it correctly. The EESC thus urges the Commission to work together appropriately with the sectors concerned when drawing up its plans, and to take proper account of scientific criteria that are solid, clear and applicable in practice.

1.4

To complement the work that will need to be carried out by the different economic sectors, the EESC calls for support measures be taken, especially in the field of R+D+i, and wishes to point out that it is precisely in times of crisis that these activities need a boost.

1.5

The Commission should accept that all of the sectors concerned must be involved in drawing up its Action Plan. The EESC wishes, therefore, to state its concern at the Retail Forum, an ill-considered measure that should be rejected because it would impose conditions on suppliers without their consent and on the basis of having a strong market position. Replacing the Retail Forum with a round table involving all of the sectors concerned on an equal footing is the only acceptable and viable approach.

1.6

With regard to the eco-design proposal, the EESC wishes to draw attention to the fact that environmental requirements should be defined in terms of the aims they are supposed to achieve rather than the technical solutions that can be found through eco-design. The constant environmental improvement of products should be achieved by studying their life-cycle, which should in turn make use of a set of indicators such as greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption, the use of non-renewable energies, the reduction of biodiversity, air and soil contamination, etc. Only by giving full consideration to all of these factors, using the appropriate methodology and scientific approach, can the ideal solution be reached.

1.7

As regards the issue of labelling, the EESC would like to point out that whilst labels are an important tool, they are not the only means of informing consumers, that the ideal solution would be to harmonise provisions in this field to help achieve the stated goals and that certain sectors such as food production already have stringent requirements in the area. The EESC considers consumer education the ideal solution to raise consumers' awareness and understanding and modify their consumption patterns.

1.8

Lastly, the EESC wishes to reiterate that all of the work to be carried out by Europe's economic stakeholders under the Commission Action Plan should also apply to imported products, to prevent the emergence of a system that is discriminatory and damaging to European producers in their own internal market.

2.   Gist of the Commission proposal

2.1

The European Union has taken significant steps to reach the objectives of growth and employment set in the Lisbon Strategy. The challenge is now to integrate this economic progress into a framework of sustainability; in the Commission's view, this is an issue that needs to be addressed without delay.

2.2

The Commission thus presents its strategy in the communication COM(2008) 397 final, which is intended to support an integrated Community-level approach to further sustainable consumption and production and promote a sustainable industrial policy. This strategy complements existing policies on energy use, notably the energy and climate package adopted by the Commission in 2008.

2.3

The Commission document presents an Action Plan, designed to improve the energy and environmental performance of products and to foster their uptake by consumers. The ultimate aim is to improve the overall environmental performance of products throughout their life-cycle, focusing on products that have significant potential for reducing environmental impacts. The real challenge is thus to create a virtuous circle: improving the overall environmental performance of products throughout their life-cycle, promoting and stimulating demand for better products and production technologies and helping consumers to make better choices through more consistent and simplified labelling, whilst at the same time making the European economy more competitive.

2.4

The Action Plan has eight flanking measures, as detailed below.

2.4.1

Ecodesign for more products: the Ecodesign Directive currently sets minimum requirements for energy-using products such as computers, heaters, televisions and industrial air-conditioning appliances; the Commission aims to use this Action Plan to extend the directive to cover energy-related products that do not consume energy during use but have an indirect impact, such as windows, for example. In conjunction with these minimum requirements, the directive will have to define the voluntary environmental performance benchmarks that environment-friendly products need to attain.

2.4.2

Improving energy/environmental labelling: labelling ensures transparency for consumers, by providing information on the product's energy or environmental performance. The Commission, therefore, proposes extending the obligation for such labelling to cover a wider range of products, including energy-using and other energy-related products. The list of products covered by Directive 92/75/EEC on energy labelling, which currently requires household electrical appliances to indicate their energy consumption, will firstly be extended to other products such as windows, which will have to indicate their insulating capacity. Secondly, the existing voluntary eco-labelling scheme, which rewards the most environment-friendly products, will be simplified and extended to cover services and products such as food and drinks.

2.4.3

Incentives: the Action Plan proposes that only products achieving a certain level of energy and environmental performance can receive incentives and be purchased by the Member States and the Community institutions, identified by labelling classes where this is obligatory and with the Member State having discretion as to when and how to allocate incentives.

2.4.4

Promoting green public procurement: public authorities spend 16 % of the EU's GDP on procuring goods and services. Purchasing green products and services could send a clear message to the market and could stimulate demand for products and services of this nature. The Commission, therefore, proposes a new Communication on green public procurement, providing public authorities with guidance to achieve this objective and which contains common criteria, aims and technical procurement criteria.

2.4.5

Consistent data and methods: the Commission considers that only on this basis can the overall environmental performance of products and their market penetration be assessed and progress monitored.

2.4.6

Work with retailers and consumers: A Retail Forum is being set up to promote the purchase of more sustainable products, to reduce the environmental footprint of the retail sector and its supply chain and to better inform consumers.

2.4.7

A boost for resource efficiency, eco-innovation and for improving the environmental potential of industry: the Commission considers resource efficiency to mean creating greater value while using fewer resources and proposes consolidating current efforts through monitoring, promotion and benchmarking measures. Further work will be carried in the field of eco-innovation, to boost its uptake as part of EU innovation policy. The Commission also proposes setting up an EU-wide environmental technology verification scheme, which would be voluntary and receive public funding, to help provide confidence in the new technologies emerging on the market. Lastly, the Commission proposes revising the current Community eco-management and audit scheme (EMAS), to help companies optimise their production processes and make more effective use of resources. The aim is to increase company participation and reduce costs to SMEs.

2.4.8

Global measures: the Commission's ambitions extend to the international arena, with its proposal aiming, amongst other things, to promote sectoral agreements in international negotiations on climate change, encourage good practice and cooperation in the field and boost international trade in goods and services.

2.5

The aims detailed in the Action Plan are accompanied by three legislative proposals:

to extend the Ecodesign Directive,

to revise the Ecolabel Regulation, and

the EMAS Regulation, and

to produce a communication on green public procurement.

3.   General comments

3.1   The EESC very much welcomes this ambitious European Commission initiative, which represents a step towards achieving a Community sustainability model and wishes to point out that the sustainability of the Community model has already been considered in a number of studies and opinions drawn up by this institution, amongst which the following should be highlighted:

The Biennial Progress Report of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy (1)

The Impact of European environmental rules on industrial change (2)

Eco-friendly production (3).

3.2   The concept of sustainability requires the integration of three fundamental pillars: the environmental, social and economic pillars. The EESC endorses the Action Plan’s aim to improve the environmental impact of products throughout their life-cycle but also wishes to point out that the other pillars – covering the social and economic aspects – should not be sidelined, if the desire is genuinely to contribute to the model's sustainability.

3.3   The situation today

3.3.1   Having studied the issue for some years, the Commission decided in July 2008 to launch this Communication on the Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy Action Plan.

3.3.2   Europe's industrial economy is undoubtedly facing an exceptional challenge and requires a new production and consumption model based on sustainability. The proposal's ambition should not, however, lead us to overlook the timing of the proposal to develop the strategy and adopt the flanking legislative measures. All of the world's economies are currently experiencing financial crises, which they are combating by adopting measures at the national, Community and multilateral levels, although the effect of these measures will not be immediate.

3.3.3   Given these sensitive circumstances, which are still being worked on, the Committee wishes to draw legislators' attention to the potential effects of this package of measures on the real economy at which it is aimed – industry and consumers. Without losing sight of its laudable aims, which can be achieved in the medium term, the proposal should be sensitive in the short term and not create uncertainty or saddle the industrial economy with additional burdens.

3.4   Akey aspect of such a wide-ranging initiative is the clarity and detail with which its messages are conveyed; it would, therefore, be desirable for the Commission to identify more clearly which economic sectors are affected by this proposal and in what specific areas. Lastly, the EESC wishes to emphasise that the Commission Action Plan does not pay sufficient attention to the methodology and scientific basis needed to achieve a common impact assessment system and prevent the proliferation of schemes that call into question the principles of the internal market and confuse the consumer.

3.5   The EESC welcomes the Commission's proposal to offer generous incentives to support the efforts companies will have to make to adapt to the new circumstances. This will mean that, in line with the ‘polluter pays’ principle, those who strive to improve the environment and especially sustainable production and consumption, will receive support.

3.6   Whilst the Action Plan proposed by the Commission will inevitably require European producers to make considerable efforts to adapt and improve, the EESC wishes to draw attention to the need to provide for rigid compliance with the new obligations that are laid down. The Commission should, therefore, ensure that imported and EU products are treated equally on the Community market, to avoid situations of discrimination and preferential treatment that unfairly penalise European producers. The EESC thus considers there to be a need for a prior study that pays close attention to the internal market and which also aims to ensure that products from third countries are treated on a completely equal footing with EU products.

3.7   One of the Action Plan's key aspects is the Retail Forum. Although the Committee endorses the stated aim (achieving the sustainable use of limited natural resources), it considers that setting up a working forum led by the retail industry is not the best means of achieving this.

3.7.1   Consequently, given the current market situation (few retailers who nonetheless wield considerable power, whilst among producers there is a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises), the only result is to exert pressure on suppliers and discriminate between products. In order to ensure a smooth and balanced functioning of the retail forum, it would make more sense to frame its working methods. The retail forum should gather all of the parties of the supply chain concerned (producers, retailers, the logistics sector, consumers and academia) on an equal footing to ensure that they work together to find solutions.

3.7.2   The platform should also promote voluntary measures in areas such as measuring methods and taking steps to improve sustainable consumption throughout the chain.

3.8   With regard to the Ecodesign Directive, the EESC wishes to state its concern at the vagueness of the definition of ‘energy-related products’. It should be clearly indicated what is meant by this and precisely what products will be covered by the proposal, because this is the only way of ensuring a minimum level of legal certainty in the economic chain.

3.9   The Commission Action Plan contains new provisions for product labelling. In this regard, the EESC would suggest that environmental labelling should be better promoted in order to increase its uptake by industry. The EESC wishes to point out in this regard that the most appropriate solution would be to standardise labelling provisions to help ensure compliance with the objectives that are set.

3.9.1   Furthermore, some sectors such as the food and drinks industry already have very demanding labelling requirements due to the nature of their products, which are covered by specific regulations.

3.9.2   As it has done on other occasions, the Committee would point out that there are other means of informing consumers, such as websites and freephone numbers, that are just as helpful to achieving the Commission's aims. A study would need to be carried out of product labelling, addressing both form and content. And more should be done to standardise the data used in product labels and markings, as this could promote trade, help consumers and bring advantages for producers too. More generally however, the EESC views consumer education as the ideal solution to raise the awareness and understanding of consumers and therefore to modify their consumption patterns.

3.10   The Committee regrets that the Commission does not offer a more decisive boost for research, development and innovation (R+D+i), as a measure to support its Action Plan. It is especially in times of crisis that research work must be continued and the EESC therefore calls for R+D+i activities to be strengthened in all areas linked to sustainable production and consumption.

Brussels, 25 February 2009.

The President

of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mario SEPI


(1)  Rapporteur: Mr Ribbe; OJ C 256, 27.10.2007.

(2)  Rapporteur: Mr Pezzini; OJ C 120, 16.05.2008.

(3)  Rapporteur: Mr Darmanin, OJ C 224, 30.08.2008.