While most of the topics at this year's European Business Summit in Brussels focused on climate change, one roundtable discussion on sustainable consumption had a strong consumer and, therefore, business angle.
Franz Fischler, the former European Commissioner for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries, started the ball rolling by recognising that the consumer is king. Markets are demand driven, he says, hence it's important that we devise policies from the consumer's point of view.
The market should play its role and incentives should come from the market rather than from the regulators, adds Fischler, who's currently the chairman of the board of the Rural Investment Support for Europe (RISE) Foundation.
Jim Murray, the former director of the consumer organisation BEUC, the European Consumers' Organisation, observes that most of the initiatives aimed at promoting sustainable consumption have had rather disappointing results. Take, for example, Heroic Green Consumers where there is very little spillover into the mass market. More information and labelling are provided, but they're not necessarily better. There is, however, a proliferation of meaningless claims, he says. Campaigns to change consumers' behaviour don't work because people don't like to be preached at and they don't want governments telling them what to do.
Those things do work, but in combination, Murray says. The National Consumer Council in the UK calls it a 'supported framework for collective progress.'
He says that one of the advantages that regulation can confer is a common approach among the different actors. If done properly, it brings certainty, a roadmap. Even if businesses don't like the content, at least there is something to work on and they can compete within the framework to try to improve things for consumers.
He says that for sustainable consumption promotion to be successful two things are necessary: a combined approach with different initiatives complementing each other, and a more realistic understanding of consumers as they actually are, and not as we would like them to be.
Carrefour has 25 million customers visiting more than 10,000 stores a day globally. Referring to a survey that reveals the customers' explicit and implicit needs, Roland Vexalaire, Quality Responsibility and Risk Management Director of the Carrefour Group, is puzzled that the customer hasn't asked for more green products.
He believes price is one of the reasons why consumers are not jumping on the eco-bandwagon. An example of what might be keeping eco-product prices high, is using third parties to work on the green credentials and labelling in order to satisfy those who want eco-guarantees.
To encourage and support businesses keen on promoting sustainable consumption, it is crucial to enforce financial incentives such as VAT reduction and reduction on corporate and personal taxes that come from investments, Vaxelaire says. Smarter consumption should not be expensive consumption.
Furthermore, it's important to support businesses so as to enable them to continue to be innovative in these fields, and also to invest.
Erika Mink, Environment Director, Europe, with Tetra Pak Benelux agrees with Vaxelaire that consumers today are confused by the plethora of information on sustainable consumption. The challenge is how we communicate the environmental performance of products with a certain benchmark to the marketplace. Rules have to be standardised and harmonised, Mink says. We need clear guidelines. This is essential if we want to keep credibility with consumers and to reduce confusion.
Mink and Vaxelaire call for 'label playing field' regulations to be enforced. We would like to see the European Commission support the business community and other stakeholders working on this with regards to sustainable consumption, Mink says.
In summary, Christophe Leclercq, Publisher of media portal EurActiv who moderated the session, notes there is a need for governments, businesses and consumers to be working together on sustainable consumption. While the consumer is king, policies are needed to regulate some of the activities. There has also been a call for clear rules. Businesses are not necessarily asking for less public standards, but more in some cases, while being open to different ways of implementing and communicating the standards.