“Our most pressing challenge is keeping our planet healthy. This is the greatest responsibility and opportunity of our times. I want Europe to become the first climate-neutral continent in the world by 2050.”

With this compelling message, newly elected President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, addressed during her Opening Statement in the European Parliament Plenary Session her commitment to strengthen the Union’s role in protecting the environment, in protecting our common home. 

There is no doubt that Pope Francis’ message expressed in his encyclical Laudato Si’ has not gone unnoticed. The Pontiff’s wake-up call to protect Nature and move towards an integral ecology has reached the social, economic and political sphere, pushing for further action and commitment in these matters. In the case of the European Union, one recent political step has been taken by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), with the own-initiative opinion INT/882 (Consumers in the Circular Economy), approved during the Plenary session on 17 July 2019. 

In order to properly transition from a linear economy (take, make, dispose) to a more environmentally friendly circular economy (reduce, recycle, reuse), the key element is to achieve changes in consumption patterns. For this, as rapporteur Carlos Trias Pintó pointed out during the plenary session, the EESC’s opinion has an innovative approach by focusing the attention on the European consumer and its great potential as a game changer. Consumers are the main driving force and they need to be protected for no one to stay behind, being able to consciously take decisions that will affect their future. 

Regarding the protection of consumers, the document of opinion touches upon a number of topics of concern that need to be tackled. First of all, as to fully develop the strength of consumers in the economy, they need to be educated and formed, in for example recycling matters. Moreover, to promote the local European production and consumption is a top priority, reassuring the good quality of products and their suitability for health and environment. Secondly, to develop a stronger eco-design, paying special attention to the products’ lifespan and the use of potentially hazardous chemicals among others. Thirdly, further steps are being taken by the Commission to implement mandatory labelling of electronic products in order to indicate their energy performance, and a general shift from voluntary to mandatory labelling is being pursued. Fourthly, the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals will be followed, giving special emphasis to SDG 12, responsible consumption and production. Finally, the EESC has been the first to address premature obsolescence and its damaging repercussions on both consumers and the environment.

The pursue to transit from a linear economy to a circular economy already represents a green step towards environmental sustainability. Furthermore, the approval of this document of opinion and its topics of concern, putting the consumer and the conservation of the environment in the centre, is a clear example of the Union’s stronger approach of protection to keep our planet healthy. In words of Pope Francis: “There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself,” and political change is the first step to achieve this. 

By Loreto Machés Blázquez

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