So far, actions to boost the development of a circular economy in Europe have centred on production, getting industries to introduce circular business models and bring circular options to the market. Now conditions are ripe for getting consumers involved, and empowering them to make sustainable purchasing choices in their daily lives, says an EESC report adopted in July.
In the report, entitled Consumers in the circular economy, the European Economic and Social Committee calls for a strategic shift to place consumers at the centre of public policy on the circular economy at all levels of government in Europe.
In the first stage of the circular economy, consumers have been confined to the role of urban agents recycling domestic waste, while the focus has been on business. European Commission initiatives, the EESC points out, have targeted regulation and production, boosting recycling levels and introducing the concept of eco-design.
Now we are beginning to see major changes from large industries. With major groups such as H&M embracing the circular model and Ikea starting to roll out a leasing model for kitchens in over 30 countries, business can be said to have come on board.
Now it is time for the Circular Economy 2.0 to tackle the consumer end, says EESC rapporteur Carlos Trias Pintó, urging the European Commission to spearhead the shift in its forthcoming initiatives.
This second phase, he stresses, will hinge on consumer information. Studies show that, while consumers are keenly aware of the social and environmental challenges, the price of a product or service frequently carries more weight in their decision than the intrinsic quality of their purchases. Information and education, however, are key factors in steering them towards circular behaviour patterns. Education and lifelong learning must therefore be put in place and consumers provided with the most objective information possible.
The EESC makes the case for voluntary labelling as a step towards mandatory labelling, indicating the product's social and environmental footprint – emission reduction, biodiversity conservation, resource efficiency or avoidance of components with a high environmental impact, estimated lifespan, possibility of obtaining spare parts and options for repair.
However, even though information and education can go a long way towards steering consumers towards green, repairable, long-lasting products, many people will not be able to afford them. As an incentive, the EESC suggests that the Member States could adopt a rewards-based approach and local administrations could use public procurement to support sustainable suppliers.
In 2015, the European Commission adopted an ambitious Circular Economy Action Plan establishing concrete measures to "close the loop" of product lifecycles through greater recycling and re-use, and bring benefits for both the environment and the economy.
Three years after its adoption, the Circular Economy Action Plan's 54 actions had been completed.
In March 2019, the European Commission adopted a comprehensive report presenting the main achievements under the Action Plan and sketching out future challenges on the way to a climate-neutral, circular economy. An EESC opinion is being prepared on that report.
The EESC has been actively involved in the process of shaping Europe's circular economy and has jointed managed, with the European Commission, the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Platform, an EU-wide database of circular economy good practices and a forum for discussion to help circular economy practitioners deal with the challenges they come up against.
Read the EESC's opinion on the role of consumers in the circular economy and the complete range of proposals