BRUSSELS – There is a forgotten player in the global efforts to limit CO2 emissions: the consumer. Households consume one third of the final energy used in the European Union and produce around two-thirds of municipal waste. Moreover, food and beverages, housing, and private transport account for almost 80% of environmental pressures.
So the potential of consumers to make a real difference when it comes to fighting climate change should not be wasted.
Several factors can direct consumers towards more environmentally friendly behavior. To achieve this, however, we need clear and simple information to guide consumption decisions.
Yet, despite strong demand, we are far from providing accessible information on products’ environmental impact of each. Indeed, two-thirds of consumers find it difficult to understand which products are better for the environment, and 29% never look for environmental information when shopping.
Companies face a problem of trust: with 58% of Europeans believing that many companies pretend to be green in order to charge higher prices, industry has a long way to go in helping consumers feel confident when making green choices.
This is why I believe that companies should find ways to give consumers more information about the carbon footprint of their products, and to promote more sustainable behavior among their customers.
To be sure, companies are increasingly creating product labels that help consumers make responsible choices – for instance, alerting users to products made from materials that are recycled, renewable, and/or less carbon-intensive.
Even so, only 20% of Europeans believe that companies are doing enough to promote environmentally friendly options.
In times of crisis, consumers are likely to prioritize high-quality products that will last a long time and won’t go out of style.
Durable products might sometimes cost more, but they don’t need to be replaced as frequently. In this way, companies that create durable or recyclable products empower consumers to think differently about their purchases.
Fostering such thinking – by introducing more eco-friendly product designs, for example – can help users behave more responsibly, and thus may help end our “throw-away” culture.
Research has shown, however, that it is not enough to inform consumers of the environmental features of products, their use, or their disposal. The availability of information alone cannot make a significant change in behavior.
In fact, an abundance of information can even be counter-productive by causing confusion and frustration. So, clear, balanced, and understandable information is the key.
We also need to provide consumers with guidance, and, ultimately, to establish a practical lifestyle model that consumers are able to emulate.
This cannot be brought about by regulations alone, but by smart, well-placed, and targeted initiatives by the business community that would create a loyal group of “sustainable consumers.”
This is all the more true for educating consumers about energy-efficient behavior and its implications for their own economic welfare.
Energy companies must help businesses and consumers understand the real carbon footprint of all products and services. When provided with simple and clear information, people will make the right choices.
Research tells us that it takes up to 15% of committed consumers to trigger a profound change. That process has begun. For example, in the United Kingdom, 54% of consumers buy more environmentally friendly products compared to two years ago.
That’s a promising start.
The European Commission plays an active role in educating consumers and developing their abilities to behave in a more sustainable way.
We have introduced new sustainability elements in online information tools such as DOLCETA, the online consumer education tool for adults, and the EUROPA DIARY, which targets young consumers.
As part of the Sustainable consumption and production Action Plan, adopted by the European Commission last July, we supported the establishment of a Retail Environmental Forum among producers and retailers in Europe.
We are also working closely with the Confederation of Food and Drinks Industries in Europe on its European Food Sustainable Production and Consumption Round Table.
I believe that such initiatives will be a strong driver for more concerted efforts directed towards consumers at the company and industrial-branch level.
But what we are ultimately looking for is behavioral change in the way consumers and markets react. Traditional consumer policy, which focuses on correcting market failures, needs to be supplemented by a modern consumer policy that looks to the future to influence the demand side of the market, leading it towards more sustainable behavior.
Many people are willing to do their bit for the environment, but they do not always have the opportunity to consume in environmentally friendly ways, because sustainable low-carbon choices are more expensive and harder to find. They should be affordable and broadly accessible for everybody.
Indeed, non-sustainable products should be phased out gradually. Research has shown that many consumers believe that environmentally non-friendly products should not even be on sale.
The consumer is telling us that he is ready for radical change. It is time for politicians and companies to respond decisively.
Meglena Kuneva is European Commissioner for Consumer Affairs.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.