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General Information – Products and Consumption

Products and environment – what is it all about?

The consumption of products is having an increasing influence not only on people's economic and social circumstances, but also on the environment. The manufacture and use of products can have major environmental impacts. Consumption in private households alone generates more than one quarter of all direct greenhouse gas emissions in Germany, and this does not even include the manufacture of consumer goods. It is important to identify and tap this potential for reducing the burden on the environment, for example by changing manufacturing processes, product design and consumer behaviour.

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"Sustainability is a quality characteristic for products" – this notion should become a guiding principle not only for consumers in Germany but also for industry and public administration. It is not just a matter of consumption as such but of what is being consumed and how. Sustainable consumption and production are therefore closely interlinked.

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The German government's policy

National Programme for Sustainable Consumption

The German government adopted the National Programme for Sustainable Consumption on 24 February 2016. The programme was drawn up by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety and presented together with the Federal Ministry of Justice and Consumer Protection and the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture. The programme sets out how the German government plans to systematically strengthen and expand sustainable consumption in various areas at national level. The National Programme for Sustainable Consumption is also an important step in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and in particular the global Sustainable Development Goal 12. It aims to turn sustainable consumption from a niche into a mainstream concept and increase consumer awareness of consumption patterns, while at the same time ensuring that all groups of the population are involved in sustainable consumption.

The programme addresses the six areas of consumption with the greatest potential for reducing pressures, for example mobility, food, housing and households, office and work, clothing, tourism and leisure. Education, consumer information and research are cross-cutting areas which are addressed as well. The programme is also a platform to facilitate the involvement of all relevant groups of society. Society as a whole will only adopt more sustainable consumption patterns if all major groups are involved.

The National Sustainable Consumption Network and the Sustainable Consumption Collaborative Centre, with an office at the Federal Environment Agency, have been set up to support implementation of the programme.

The top-runner approach

The top-runner approach is the German government's guiding principle in product-related environmental protection. It is aimed at a swift penetration of the market with the most environmentally-friendly and resource- or energy-efficient technologies. The fundamental concept of the top-runner approach, which was developed in Japan, works as follows: the best product available on the market sets the standard and other products in the same product group have to achieve this standard within a certain time frame. Products that fail to do so can no longer be placed on the market. The following instruments are currently available within the Single European Market to implement the top-runner approach: 

  • minimum efficiency standards (Ecodesign Directive)
  • mandatory energy consumption labelling
  • voluntary environmental labelling of innovative products (EU eco-label and Blue Angel)
  • environmental criteria for public procurement

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Minimum efficiency standards (Ecodesign Directive)

The Ecodesign Directive constitutes the European legal framework for defining requirements for the ecodesign of energy-related products. The implementation of the Ecodesign Directive leads to the exclusion of particularly inefficient products from the European market. Energy efficiency requirements in products are currently the most important aspect of the Directive. One example of the success of this policy is the reduction of electricity consumed by household appliances and office equipment in standby mode to 1-2 watts. However, in future, other environmental aspects are to be given greater consideration, for example the resource consumption of products.

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Mandatory energy consumption labelling

The EU-wide mandatory labelling of products regarding their energy and resource consumption during the use phase (energy label) offers consumers information on the energy and resource consumption of products, enabling them to compare different products and make their purchases accordingly. This is also an incentive for manufacturers to continually improve their products. This policy enhances the market penetration of particularly efficient products.

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Voluntary environmental labelling of innovative products (EU eco-label and Blue Angel)

The Blue Angel is the most well-known environmental label for products in Germany. More than 12,000 products and services in around 120 product groups have been assessed in the almost 40 years of its existence. Labelling under the Blue Angel is voluntary for manufacturers. It guarantees consumers a particularly environmentally friendly and functional product. Since the label was reviewed in 2009, the Blue Angel focuses even more on the environmental aspects of products. At present it is awarded in the fields of climate, water, health and resource conservation. The website www.blauer-engel.de allows consumers to search for specific products bearing the Blue Angel label.

The EU eco-label is the environmental label awarded by the European Union. The voluntary label, introduced in 1992, has become an EU-wide reference for consumers who want to contribute to pollution reduction by buying environmentally friendly products and services.

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Environmental criteria for public procurement

Another important instrument is green public procurement: When public authorities, whether at national, Länder or local level, purchase goods or services, for expamle for schools, administrative buildings or road construction, they should set an example and give preference to innovative and environmentally friendly products. Raising demand through purchases by public institutions creates and strengthens markets for environmentally sound products and services.

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Consumer information

Consumers can help reduce negative impacts on the environment and contribute to the sound use of valuable resources by making conscious consumption decisions. Labels such as the Blue Angel, the EU eco-label, the bio-label and energy consumption labelling provide practical guidance for choosing and buying products. Additionally, there are a wide range of other labels that vary considerably with regard to environmental and social awareness, and credibility; the Internet portal "Siegelklarheit" provides guidance for several product groups. A further challenge is to ensure environment-related consumer information in e-commerce. Reports published by the European Commission reveal that the greatest potential for reducing negative impacts on the environment lie in the food, transport and construction/housing sectors, and the area of household appliances in particular. Sustainable products are available in many cases – it is simply a matter of demand!


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International product policy

A sustainable process: From Rio to Rio

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, first discussions were held on sustainable consumption. Then in Johannesburg in 2002, the Marrakesh Process was launched. Industrialised countries in particular were urged to promote sustainable consumption and production.

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20) in 2012, the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns was approved. It provides a global framework for measures in the area of consumption and production patterns.

In September 2015 at the UN headquarters, the heads of state and government adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which sets out the global sustainable development goals. A number of chapters deal with the implementation of sustainable consumption and production patterns, and there is also a specific goal (SDG12: ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns).

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European product policy

European product policy The European Commission has launched numerous initiatives on environmental product policy. These include the Communication on integrated product policy (IPP) of June 2003, which laid foundations for taking into account the environmental impacts of products over their entire life span. The European Ecodesign Directive ensures that environmental requirements are also observed in product design. Furthermore, there are numerous EU initiatives such as the EU eco-label, green public procurement initiatives and the eco-management and audit scheme (EMAS).

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Last update: 17.08.2017