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General Information - Products and Environment

Products and environment - what is it all about?

Consumption in private households alone generates more than 25 percent of all direct greenhouse gas emissions in Germany, and this does not even include the manufacturing of consumer goods. This means that the consumption of products has an increasing impact on the economic and social situation of people and also on the state of the environment through both production and use of products. It follows that these are areas with great potential for reducing the burden on the environment. We now have to identify this potential and use it.

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"Sustainability is a quality label 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 impact on each other.

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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 Minister of Justice and Consumer Protection and the Federal Minister of Food and Agriculture. The programme lays out how the German government plans to systematically strengthen and expand sustainable consumption in various areas at national level. The programme is an important step to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 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 have access to sustainable consumption.

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

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 of the same product type have to achieve this standard within a certain time frame. Products which 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 (Eco-Design 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 Eco-Design Directive constitutes the European legal framework for defining design requirements for energy consuming products. The implementation of the Eco-Design 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. However, the Directive also grants fundamental regulatory leeway for the inclusion of other environmental aspects such as 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 the products they buy, 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 widest known environmental label for products in Germany. More than 12,000 products and services of around 120 product groups have been assessed in the 35 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 being awarded in the sectors 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 with EU Regulation EEC 880/92, 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 environmentally sound public procurement: When public authorities of any level purchase goods or services, e.g. for schools, administrative buildings or in road construction, they should set an example and give preference to innovative and environmentally sound products. Raising demand through purchases from public institutions creates and strengthens markets for environmentally sound products and services.

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International product policy

A sustainable process: From Rio to Rio

At the World Summit for 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 for Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro (Rio+20) in 2012, the 10 Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production was approved as adopted by the 19th session of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD 19). It provides a global framework for measures in the area of consumption and production patterns.

In September 2015 the heads of state and government adopted the 2030 Agenda which sets out the global sustainable development goals. A number of chapters deal with the implementation of sustainable consumption and production patterns but there is also a chapter dedicated exclusively to this goal.

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European product policy

The European Commission launched numerous initiatives on environmental product policy. One of them is the Communication on integrated product policy (IPP) of June 2003 which laid the foundation for taking into account the environmental impacts of products over their entire life span. The European Eco-Design Directive makes sure that environmental requirements are also observed in product design. 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 Watt. Furthermore, there are numerous EU initiatives such as the EU environmental label (text in German), public procurement initiatives and the eco-management and audit scheme (EMAS).

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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 decisions. Eco-labels such as the Blue Angel in Germany provide practical guidance for choosing and buying products. Surveys published by the EU Commission reveal that the greatest potential for reducing negative impacts on the environment lie in the food, transport, construction/housing sectors and the area of household appliances in particular. Sustainable products are available – it is simply a matter of demand!

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Last update: 01.03.2016