The article is exclusively Co-authored for the Sting by Mrs Monique Goyens, Director General of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) and Mrs Sylvia Maurer, Head of Sustainability and Safety in the organisation.
The negative consequences of climate change are already and will increasingly be affecting consumers worldwide. We experience lower health standards due to air pollution, extended heat waves and will suffer from new diseases. Food security and the richness of our diets will be threatened through a loss of biodiversity. Without a major transition in the way we produce and consume, consumers will experience higher living costs for food, transport, energy and natural disaster insurance premiums. Hence, there is a very prominent interest for consumers and consumer organisations to fight further global warming.
While many consumers are keen on taking small steps such as using energy saving light bulbs or sorting waste, some are already going beyond and switch towards electric cars and engage in self-generation of electricity through solar panels. Yet, most consumers feel neither empowered nor motivated to make bolder moves. This is partly because consumers, usually no experts in energy or climate issues, do not see how their contribution matters in relation to the urgency and scale of the problem and because they receive too many contradicting messages on what they are expected to do. Consumers need better support through the right framework conditions to make a change in lifestyles.
First, there are multiple market failures which need to be addressed. Today, the polluter pays principle does not work: those consumers who seek to live more sustainably have often to pay a higher price. Why do they have to pay for not polluting? One step that needs to be undertaken in this regard is for governments to urgently eliminate environmentally harmful subsidies and progress substantially with green financial reforms, thereby lowering prices for sustainable products and services. Environmental costs have to be incorporated in the purchase price and social standards have to be respected.
Second, we have to find ways how to get out of the vicious circle of living in a “throw-away” society. Too often, consumers do not receive quality for money: many products are not designed to last long or cannot be repaired. Policy makers should make sure that the life-span of products will be extended. This can be done through measure such as Ecodesign and Ecolabelling which could set requirements on the design, on reparability, upgradeability, re-use and recycling of products.
Third, regulators need to ensure that consumers are provided with clear, comparable and credible information on climate impact of the products and services they buy. Consumers should for example be provided with information on how long a product is expected to last, if a product can be repaired and for how long spare parts will be made available. Many labelling schemes do not work effectively as consumers ‘drown’ in a flood of meaningless and unsubstantiated green claims. Untapped potential lies therefore in improving the guidance document on the Unfair Commercial Practices Directive which currently falls short to give specific advice on how to remove environmentally misleading advertisements from the market. A concrete possibility to provide consumers with more effective information about energy efficiency is the ongoing revision of the EU Energy Label: this information scheme should become again an intuitive information tool with a simple scale from green “A” for the most efficient to a red “G” for the least efficient. Likewise, the EU labelling scheme for the fuel consumption of cars has to be revised to follow this intuitive logic. Consumers also need access to transparent and comparable information on green electricity offers.
How do consumers tick?
Behavioral economics research points out that well-designed measures can overcome individuals’ cognitive and motivational barriers to adopt climate change mitigation measures while increasing individual and collective welfare. We need not only to better structure economic incentives but also to make better use of non-financial incentives – for instance measures which increase convenience or are beneficial for our health. To take one example: the success of electric vehicles in Norway is – in addition to tax incentives – also related to the fact that there are free parking spaces in cities and that the bus or taxi lane can be used.
While much attention is currently given to the question of who has to cut how much in emissions and by when, very little attention is given in these international negotiations to the impact that such an agreement will have on the every-day-live of consumers. However, believing that the changes can be imposed ‘top-down’ rather than based on broad support of citizens is a false assumption. Consumers need to understand what emission sources (e.g. car emissions, heating, food production) matter in terms of impacts and what concrete changes they should do in their daily habits. We therefore emphasise that governments should allocate the necessary time and resources to explain to consumers their policies on climate change, help them understand the reasoning behind certain actions and involve consumers through structured dialogues and projects. Only if we manage to create a common vision on a sustainable future with a good quality of life, we will have the chance to have people on board for the big challenges which lie ahead.
In 2009, consumer organisations left the UN summit in Copenhagen with great disappointment because there was no agreement on a binding protocol suitable to prevent dangerous global warming.
We expect that in Paris policy makers agree to an ambitious and binding agreement which will prevent further climate change – and it has to be done now.
About the authors
As Director General of BEUC, Monique represents 41 independent national consumer associations in 31 European countries, acting as a strong consumer voice in Brussels, ensuring that consumer’ interests are given weight in the development of policies and raising the visibility and effectiveness of the consumer movement through lobbying EU institutions and media contacts.
As a consumer expert and advocate, she was member of the EU High-level Expert Group on reforming the structure of the EU banking sector (Liikanen group – 2012), the EU High-level Group on the sustainability of the food supply chain (2011-2014) and the EU Resource Efficiency Platform (2012-2014). She is a delegate in the Consultative Commission on Industrial Change of the European Economic and Social Committee as well as an effective member of the Euro Retail Payments Board. Recently, she has been appointed in the Advisory Group of the European Commission on the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership (TTIP).
In her capacity as BEUC Director General, Monique is currently EU co-chair of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) a network of EU and US consumer organisations, and she also represents BEUC at Consumers International, the international consumer organisation.
Apart from championing consumer’ rights, Monique’s passions/challenges are her family, cooking for friends and long walks with her golden retriever.
Sylvia Maurer is Head of Sustainability and Safety at BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation. BEUC has a membership of 41 well respected, independent national consumer organisations from 31 European countries. BEUC acts as the umbrella group in Brussels for these organisations and defends the interests of all Europe’s consumers. Sylvia works on sustainable consumption and production and supervises externally funded projects on the implementation of the EU Ecodesign Directive, the EU Energy Label, the EU Ecolabel, sustainable cars, renewable energies and on chemicals in international trade agreements. Sylvia provides intelligence, information and advice to BEUC’s member organisations in the area of environment and safety. She is the EU-Co chair of the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) Policy Committee on Nanotechnologies. Sylvia joined BEUC in December 2007 and she studied Political Science and European Studies at the Universities of Bonn, Bradford and Berlin.