What issues and challenges will European consumer protection face in the coming legislative period? This question was addressed by a high-level event of the European Consumer Centres Network (ECC), which took place on 6th November 2019 at the Norway House in Brussels.
Between environmental necessities against the background of the climate crisis, digitalisation, algorithms and Artificial Intelligence as well as product safety and law enforcement across European borders, were all addressed as part of the wide range of topics of the EU’s future consumer policy agenda.
Durability of products and repair
Many consumers already have had experiences with washing machines, printers and other - allegedly low-priced - household appliances, which stop working after less than 3 years. The Belgian consumer organisation Test Achats alone has received 9,000 such complaints in only 2 years. However, in many cases repairs are not possible, regularly due to a lack of a repair manual or because software updates are not available. Often, it is more cost effective to buy a new appliance. Even traders regularly recommend buying a new appliance rather than repairing an old one.
Sustainable consumption and “greenwashing”
Against the background of the Green Deal, planned by the EU Commission, Věra Jourová, the outgoing Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality pointed out at the ECC event that the Green Deal would make a lot possible. However, that consumerism was not compatible with it. To improve the durability of products, to increase access to repair and to tackle “greenwashing” was not only regarded as the order of the day by Jourová, but also by MEP Pascal Durand (Renew), Marie-Paul Benassi (EU Commission) and Ursula Pachl (BEUC). According to Jourová, the EU also had to play its part to increase consumers’ interest in sustainable consumption. However, Pachl warned against making only consumers carry the entire responsibility for sustainable consumption. It would make sense to introduce minimum standards for repairs or mandatory test protocols on products’ sustainability. Benassi referred to the Mission Letter of Justice Commissioner-designate Didier Reynders according to which it was time to support consumers in respect of the green and digital transformation and to make this mandatory for traders. With regard to “greenwashing” and misleading adverts concerning sustainably it had been - according to Benassi - so far difficult to take legal action against companies.
Good and bad practice
As an example of good practice for a more sustainable consumption, a Danish App was introduced, which based on barcodes shows consumers how healthy a product is. A free of charge, publicly made available Norwegian App on current air pollution and quality might also help to inform consumers and to encourage them to follow a greener lifestyle. Another positive example is a Slovenian legal regulation, which, in case of repairs, enshrines consumers’ rights to be offered the most sustainable solution. Negative experiences in this sector were made by the Norwegian ECC, where Apple sued a repair workshop for Apple products because of forgery.
Law enforcement with regard to third countries - Digital Services Act
In case of orders via platforms and direct orders, among other from China, problems of consumers with defect and dangerous products have multiplied. Examples are charging cables, which catch fire or bicycles, whose brakes do not work. Pachl also mentioned the example of a highly dangerous fire detector, which had been listed by Amazon as “First Choice”. However, 50 % of the products had been defect. Traders from third countries, who offer their products in the EU, also fall under the European consumer law but due to a lack of law enforcement many attempts to take action fail. One approach would be - under certain conditions - to extend liability also to platforms. Hence, it would be important to also adequately consider the consumer perspective on platforms within the framework of the announced Digital Services Acts. This shall be submitted by the new Commission via the executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager.