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Circular Economy and Consumer Protection: The Consumer as a Citizen and the Limits of Empowerment Through Consumer Law

Abstract

The role of consumers as citizens contributing to a circular economy must be seen as part of a broader policy mix aimed at stimulating sustainable production on the supply side of the market, and sustainable consumption on the demand side. Consumers can be active contributors to a circular economy through their actions on the demand side, and EU law has sought to facilitate environmentally-friendly consumer choices through information rights. Further reaching measures can however be envisaged whereby sustainability aims can be taken into account when shaping consumer law. Thus, consumers may be stimulated to opt for repair or to engage in shared use of products through “servitization.”

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See also http://ec.europa.eu/environment/green-growth/index_en.htm, for an overview of the areas in which actions are being taken.

  2. 2.

    Consumers also have increasingly become active on the supply side of the market, facilitated by online platforms that enable non-professional traders to offer products and services to consumers. Which rules should apply to this “prosumer” is subject to debate. Due to reasons of space, we will not deal with that question here. For further reading, see Weitzenboeck (2015); Brown and Marsden (2013).

  3. 3.

    The latest revision of the Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive occurred in 2015 with the adoption of Directive (EU) 2015/720 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 29 April 2015 amending Directive 94/62/EC as regards reducing the consumption of lightweight plastic carrier bags [2015] OJ L115/11.

  4. 4.

    See, i.a., the Proposal for a directive amending Directive 2008/98/EC on waste; COM/2015/0595 final; Proposal for a Directive amending Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste; COM/2015/0596; Proposal for a Directive amending Directive 1999/31/EC on the landfill of waste; COM/2015/0594 final; Proposal for a directive amending Directives 2000/53/EC on end-of-life vehicles, 2006/66/EC on batteries and accumulators and waste batteries and accumulators, and 2012/19/EU on waste electrical and electronic equipment; COM/2015/0593 final.

  5. 5.

    See Annex I Directive 2005/29/EC, i.a., point 1 (claiming to be a signatory to a code of conduct when the trader is not), 2 (Displaying a trust mark, quality mark or equivalent without having obtained the necessary authorisation), 3 (Claiming that a code of conduct has an endorsement from a public or other body which it does not have), 4 (Claiming that a trader (including his commercial practices) or a product has been approved, endorsed or authorized by a public or private body when he/it has not or making such a claim without complying with the terms of the approval, endorsement or authorisation), 10 (Presenting rights given to consumers in law as a distinctive feature of the trader’s offer).

  6. 6.

    Several national public authorities have indeed developed guidelines on environmental claims, see https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/factsheet_environmental_claims_non-food_2015_en.pdf, i.a., Denmark, France, Finland, the UK.

  7. 7.

    See, i.a., chapter D International Code of Commerce Advertising and Marketing Communications, <https://cms.iccwbo.org/content/uploads/sites/3/2018/09/icc-advertising-and-marketing-communications-code-int.pdf; see, e.g., for France the recommendation on sustainable development of the Autorité de Régulation Professionelle de la Publicité, https://www.arpp.org/nous-consulter/regles/regles-de-deontologie/developpement-durable/; in the Netherlands an environmental code of advertising was developed (Milieureclamecode), https://www.reclamecode.nl/nrc/pagina.asp?paginaID=262%20&deel=2 and a similar code exists in Belgium, http://www.jep.be/sites/default/files/rule_reccommendation/milieu_nl.pdf.

  8. 8.

    See https://www.blauer-engel.de/en.

  9. 9.

    See https://www.nordic-ecolabel.org/the-nordic-swan-ecolabel/.

  10. 10.

    See https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/study_on_environmetal_claims_for_non_food_products_2014_en.pdf.

  11. 11.

    An analysis of the potential for legal actions in different EU member states has been published in a series of country reports in the Journal of European Consumer and Market Law (EuCML). See issues 2017/1 and 2017/2.

  12. 12.

    See, e.g., the initiatives taking in the field of waste and recycling (e.g., Directive 2008/98/EC on waste; Directive 1999/31/EC on the landfill of waste; Directive 94/62/EC on packaging and packaging waste, Directive 2000/53/EC on end-of-life vehicles; Directive 2006/66/ZC on batteries and accumulators and waste batteries and accumulators; Directive 2012/19/EU on waste electrical and electronic equipment).

  13. 13.

    A Dutch ADR body decided in the same sense; see Geschillencommissie May 30, 2017, https://www.degeschillencommissie.nl/consumenten/uitsprakenoverzicht/108944/commissie-gaat-uitvan-een-gebrek-aan-het-toestel-dat-niet-door-de-consument-is-veroorzaakt>.

  14. 14.

    A study by Test-Achats confirmed that problems may occur with refurbished phones. Half of the (18) tested refurbished Iphones, showed important defects (https://www.test-aankoop.be/hightech/gsms-en-smartphones/nieuws/een-op-twee-refurbished-iphones-deugt-niet, October 2016). Only one phone (refurbished by Apple) was flawless.

  15. 15.

    Durability was added as an objective criterion for the assessment of conformity (recital 32 and Art.7), but it remains to be seen whether this will actually contribute to more sustainable products. In addition, the final text of the 2019 directive fortunately still allows Member States to impose longer guarantee periods than the two-year period imposed by the directive (Art. 10).

  16. 16.

    The recitals of the proposal only mention that “insofar as specific durability information is indicated in any pre-contractual statement which forms part of the sales contract, the consumer should be able to rely on them as a part of the criteria for conformity” (recital 32). A (general) obligation to provide such durability information in order to allow the consumer to make a sustainable product choice is not provided for.

  17. 17.

    See, e.g., Ecodesign requirements related to computers (https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiatives/ares-2018-770780_en) and household refrigerators (https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiatives/ares-2018-476272_en).

  18. 18.

    https://ec.europa.eu/info/law/better-regulation/initiatives/ares-2016-7108187_en.

  19. 19.

    See https://www.homiepayperuse.com/. Even Ikea is considering to rent home furniture as part of a more sustainable business, see https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/feb/04/kitchen-for-rent-ikea-to-trial-leasing-of-furniture.

  20. 20.

    e.g., Philips at Schiphol airport, but also at Kortrijk library, Philips.com; see http://www.lighting.philips.be/systemen/circular-lighting.

  21. 21.

    See (Tukker 2004) who points out that the majority of the eight reviewed PSS types only results in marginal environmental improvements; some PSS types could even lead to increased environmental impacts, i.a., due to less responsible user behaviour.

  22. 22.

    The study of Zaring et al. even suggests that when environmental reasons are the main driver it is rare for the business to be profitable.

  23. 23.

    Thus, e.g., in the car industry where producer start offering certain models solely on subscription based usage thus cutting out car dealers, see Bostoen and Devroe 2018, p. 411. The authors refers to the example of Volvo’s Polestar hybrid sports coupe that would only be offered on a subscription based usage.

  24. 24.

    Zaring 2001, p. 498. Life Cycle Assessment can be applied to services (see, e.g., M Goedkoop e.a. Product Service Systems. Ecological and economic basis, https://www.pre-sustainability.com/download/Product_Service_Systems_main_report.pdf. Over the past years, the ‘Product and Organisation Environmental Footprint (PEF/OEF)’ methodology - a life cycle-based multicriteria measure of the environmental performance of products, services, and organizations - has been further tested and refined (European Commission 2019b, pp. 46–47). This methodology has however also been criticized for creating confusion and limitations in applicability to practice, see, i.a., Goldstein and Lessard 2018.

  25. 25.

    Although certain ancillary services (e.g., the installation of the goods) are covered, cf. Art. 2 (5) Consumer Sales Directive 1999 and although the Consumer Sales Directive 2019 includes certain goods with incorporated or interconnected digital services.

  26. 26.

    Although damage caused by a defective product while providing a service is covered by the directive, see, e.g., Case C-2013/99, Veedfald, ECLI:EU:C:2001:258.

  27. 27.

    See for examples of existing services standards see, e.g., CEN 2015 standard on Aesthetic Surgery services (<http://www.cen.eu/news/brief-news/Pages/NEWS-2015-001.aspx>; EN 15838:2009 Customer Contact Centres; EN ISO 17100: 2015 requirements for translation services etc. …

  28. 28.

    See the British Standard 8001; https://ecostandard.org/first-standard-on-circular-economy/.

  29. 29.

    The Dutch financial authority, e.g., confirmed that the warning “borrowing money costs money” that is obligatory when marketing consumer credit, does not apply to private lease: https://www.amweb.nl/financiele-planning/nieuws/2017/04/afm-private-lease-huur-dus-geen-waarschuwing-nodig-10194509.

  30. 30.

    See Wetgevingsbrief AFM 2014 aan het ministerie van financiën, 10 juli 2014, p. 5

  31. 31.

    See also the definition of credit agreement in Art. 3 c) Consumer credit directive 2008/48/EC: ‘”credit agreement” means an agreement whereby a creditor grants or promises to grant to a consumer credit in the form of a deferred payment, loan or other similar financial accommodation, except for agreements for the provision on a continuing basis of services or for the supply of goods of the same kind, where the consumer pays for such services or goods for the duration of their provision by means of instalments.’

  32. 32.

    Thus “leasing” (“financieringshuur”) only qualifies as a credit agreement under Belgian law if the contract includes an explicit or implicit option to purchase the good, see Art. I.9, 47 Code of economic law. See also the comments of the FOD economie on the former, similar definition of financieringshuur in Art. 1, 10 Consumer credit act http://www.consumercredit.be/nl/article-1,-10%C2%B0-financieringshuurf.html.

  33. 33.

    https://www.bkr.nl/globalassets/documenten/positioning-papers/positioning-paper%2D%2D-private-lease.pdf.

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    Mak, V., Terryn, E. Circular Economy and Consumer Protection: The Consumer as a Citizen and the Limits of Empowerment Through Consumer Law. J Consum Policy 43, 227–248 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10603-019-09435-y

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    Keywords

    • Circular economy
    • Consumer protection
    • Servitization
    • Information obligations