World Consumer Rights Day takes place every year on the 15th of March. It is a global awareness-raising initiative where consumer rights organisations highlight the importance of consumer rights around the world. Particularly in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Brexit repercussions and now on the cusp of a new inflationary/recessionary period, it is important that consumers are aware of past and future challenges and exercise their consumer rights and entitlements.
The next economic age, also known as “the third industrial revolution“, is underway in Europe – with sustainability at its core. The lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic went beyond how we can better pool our resources to overcome crises and showed us that greener processes can assist in Europe’s short-term recovery and help address long-term climate change threats at the same time. As we exit the pandemic, the European Commission and the European Consumer Centres Network celebrate the first World Consumer Day after Covid (15 March 2022) by celebrating the efforts our European Union is undertaking for a successful transition to the green economy of the future.
Europe has set itself the goal of becoming the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050 via the programmes of the European Green Deal, the blueprint for a continent-wide transformational change. Focusing on biodiversity, sustainable food systems, agriculture, mobility and industry, as well as clean energy, building and renovating, eliminating pollution and climate action, the Green Deal will effectively redesign EU public policies for Europe’s transition to overall sustainability across manufacturing, mobility, energy renewables, greener lifestyles and a circular economy, all of which together can transform European economies and societies.
EU Sustainability Drivers and Obligations
In Europe alone, the European Commission estimates that circular economy principles could increase EU GDP by 0.5% by 2030 and create an additional 700,000 jobs. In order to alleviate the immediate socio-economic impacts, the green transition process will be supported through the Just Transition Mechanism 2021-2027 and the EU Next Generation Fund, which will allocate at least 37% of all national recovery and resilience plans to climate-positive initiatives, via local and national public authorities strategic plans.
In addition, the EU’s new circular economy action plan for sustainable growth will address the following sectors: electronics, hardware and software, batteries, vehicles, packaging, plastics, textiles, construction, food and water quality. Meanwhile, the latest and upcoming EU consumer protection legislation aims at promoting sustainable consumption including by regulating for product longevity, countering built-in obsolescence and increasing product guarantees/warranties.
Sustainability in Business and Consumer Behaviour Trends
According to a recent survey, 96% of Europeans said they would take at least one personal action to help mitigate climate change, such as recycling waste, reducing consumption or changing their diet. At the same time, a long-term aim in the area of consumer rights is making businesses increase product durability and operate take-back schemes for end-of-life products that can be recycled into new items.
A sustainable economy relies on the actions of both consumers and traders. In the years ahead, there will be increased pressure on corporations to deliver on green commitments, particularly in the context of high-volume online shopping and greenwashing claims. An industry that has been repeatedly identified as one of the main culprits in slowing down the move to a more sustainable economy and healthier environment is the fast-fashion industry. Studies such as this reveal low prices lead to greater consumption of low-quality goods, which cannot be re-used and end their short shelf life as unrecyclable landfill waste. Another industry that has become indispensable to our contemporary lifestyles – mobile phones and smart devices – has a long way to go towards coming up with an extension of product lifetime that can significantly mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and the strain on the natural resources that provide the raw materials for device components.
It is why one of the key elements in the green transition process in Europe is for businesses to meet the demands of EU climate-change mitigation regulations, such as the new EU Taxonomy system. This establishes environmentally sustainable economic activities and will require businesses to disclose their climate-change mitigation processes required by the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive’s Environmental Matters Reporting Guidelines.
Sustainable Initiatives in the European Union
In addition to EU-wide efforts, numerous national and local actions promote environmental protection and sustainability in Europe. Some of them go beyond EU legislation and use particularly innovative approaches that directly benefit European consumers. The European Consumer Centres Network highlights some worthy examples below.
- Austria fights electronic waste with repair vouchers that cover half of the repair costs, up to a maximum of €200. This encourages consumers to repair rather than discard faulty smart devices and electronic items.
- Belgium’s second-hand shops buy and sell furniture, appliances and household items at bargain prices in order to reinsert unwanted items into the circular economy.
- Croatia’s waste exchange platform brings together companies willing to swap and recycle production waste materials that can be used in further manufacturing processes.
- France encourages consumers to choose repair over replacement by granting a six-month extension of the 2-year legal product guarantee.
- Germany’s law on circular economy aims at curtailing overproduction, returns and destruction of unsold goods, and manufacturers and retailers must document how they donate or resell them at a lower price.
- Luxembourg is the first country in the world to offer free public transport for both residents and tourists in a bid to raise awareness for environmentally-friendly mobility.
- Norway recycles more than 92% of all bottles and cans every year at the point of sale, in exchange for a partial refund of the purchase price.
- Portugal launched a programme to fight energy poverty by subsidising insulation and renovation costs to make houses more energy-efficient.
- Sweden reduced VAT from 25% to 12% for repair services of bicycles, shoes, leather goods, clothing and household linen. Manufacturer repairs of large electric appliances are 50% subsidised by the state.
Sustainability is an important driver for Irish consumer purchasing behaviour at present. A multitude of recent consumer surveys confirms that the majority of Irish consumers are willing to play their part, including by paying more, in order to support the local drive towards a climate-neutral economy. For example, consumers have become increasingly aware that cheap low-quality products created a throw-away culture whose impacts are greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, waste generation and, last but not least, bad work conditions for industry workers.
Nevertheless, purchasing decisions based on sustainability credentials is lagging, mostly due to affordability and lack of sustainability education. This is in line with findings on European consumer behaviours, where consumers state that durability and repairability of products are important to them but find it hard to put these into practice due to barriers such as the availability or high price points of second-hand or refurbished products. A recent Digital Business Ireland survey revealed that only 19% of online Irish consumers consider sustainability a factor in their purchasing decisions, and only 15% see climate change to be a priority issue.
In terms of consumer action, Irish people can take part in a variety of national and local sustainable initiatives. Here are some examples
- Ireland’s Circular Economy Programme (2021 to 2027) run by the Environmental Protection Agency focuses on consumer product areas of interest such as eco-design, durability, repair and reuse activities and finding uses for by-products.
- The Rediscovery Centre (National Centre for the Circular Economy) is a “creative movement connecting people, ideas and resources to support greener low-carbon living” and runs activities and courses for the general public and school communities here.
In an institutional context, Ireland has set itself a target to achieve a climate-neutral economy by 2050. One of the ways to do that is through the ‘Government Circular Economy Strategy (2022-2023)’, which introduces a sectoral roadmap through initiatives such as the new Deposit Return Scheme for plastic bottles and aluminium cans operational from 2022. The Circular Economy Bill 2021 and the associated Public Service Innovation Fund 2022 will support numerous green initiatives. Among these, Dublin City Council’s upcoming online platform will enable local neighbourhoods to request and trial ‘tactical urbanism’ environmental solutions in their area and community.
Many environmental initiatives and projects in Ireland are supported and funded by the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications through the Irish Environmental Network and the EU’s Green European Foundation. The first step is to encourage businesses to invest in greener, sustainable products, services and business models. There will be a major focus on verifiable reduction in energy consumption, carbon output and climate-ethical work practices in the years ahead. These are some of the notable programmes:
- The zero-carbon Climate Toolkit 4 Business resource is here.
- The Green Offer programme by Enterprise Ireland is designed to help companies incorporate sustainable practices into the day-to-day running of their business.
- MODOS is a circular economy training programme for SMEs run by local authorities in Ireland.
- The Sustainability Leaders training programme run by business organisations in Ireland prepares organisations big and small for the challenges of transitioning to future-proof sustainable business models.
- The Rediscovery Centre’s Circular Economy Academy supports circular economy businesses across Ireland to maximise material reuse and prevent waste production.
- ReMark, Ireland’s Reuse Quality Mark of Excellence is an organisational-level accreditation for the reuse sector confirming the quality of second-hand products for sale.
Read more on Irish consumer attitudes on climate change here: