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L'Economie Politique n°39 Pour un nouveau modèle de consommation - 2008

Special edition of the French monthly magazine Alternatives Economiques

Series Trends in Social Cohesion
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Responsible consumption
Legislation concerning responsible consumption

While it is easy to clarify and isolate the typical forms of initiatives for the ethical finance and the fair trade sector, it is more difficult for the area of responsible consumption as there are numerous ways to view this vast field. This analysis will focus on commitments which include the involvement of citizens in responsible consumption or on important state initiatives touching responsible consumption, for example concerning the environment or public procurement. State support for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives of enterprises will be mentioned in passing as they provide only the preconditions for responsible consumption. Due to the wide scope of application the responsible consumption sector occupies the highest percentage of the results from the questionnaire. Responsible consumption initiatives (1) are available in about 72% of the member states of the Council of Europe, while supporting regulations for this sector exist in 48% of the member states.

Legal initiatives can be observed in western European countries as well as in eastern and southern European countries (2) to a lesser extent. They take place at national, regional and local level. At European Union level many legal initiatives have also been carried out.

The quality of commitment of the existing legislation for responsible consumption is described below.

a. Initiatives which recognise the sector of responsible consumption

In this category different communications are available that pick out responsible consumption as a central theme and express the need to support the sector. They can be found in declarations and initiatives of different public authority organs (3) or legislative proposals (4), mostly at national level. The British Government’s Organic Action Plan encourages public procurement of locally-produced organic food. The Federal Plan for Sustainable Development 2000-2004 in Belgium sets out concrete, detailed aims with targets to achieve within a certain time to further the sector. Thus in 2003 the purchase of nutrition by public administrations was scheduled to account for 4% of the market for organic products and 4% for products which have been produced in a “socially responsible” way.

The European Union has expressed in many different documents the need to support and develop the sector of responsible consumption, most recently in the Consumer Policy Strategy 2002-2006 (5).

b. Regulations which provide legal support for the responsible consumption sector

At this level of legislation states have decided to actively support the sector. They do this by providing fiscal advantages, “responsible” labels, favourable legal frameworks for “sustainable” public procurement or by providing financial or other support for the sector.

Fiscal advantages exist, for example at national level in the Netherlands, where organic farmers and producers of organic products, who obtain at least 70% of their turnover selling organic products, can deduct up to € 10,227 from their income taxes. Furthermore, many states have established at national and regional level different public “responsible” labels to further the sector. They concern to a large extent the environment (6), but also different social conditions (7).

Legal frameworks which favour “sustainable public procurement” exist, for example, at local, regional or national level in Austria, Belgium, Germany, (8) Poland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Most of the laws take into account social, ecological, environmental or socio-political aspects in one way or another. Belgium provides a website (9) for public authorities to help them choose sustainable products and to advise them how to formulate the tender. The new public procurement law of Poland promotes ethical and fair solutions. Switzerland is known for advanced initiatives for green procurement (10). The first annual report (2002) of a cross-government sustainable procurement group in the United Kingdom has recently recommended some positive changes to support sustainable procurement. This includes an explicit policy commitment to pursue sustainable procurement or guidelines to government departments making clear the approach of value for money within sustainable procurement. Germany may be seen as advanced as it provides initiatives at local, regional and national levels. Furthermore, it provides public authorities with a handbook on green public procurement and a website (11) to promote sustainable procurement.

Financial support comes from local, regional and national public authorities and is directed, amongst others, to the following purposes: subsidies at national, regional and local level for the organisational and structural development of CSAs and AMAPs (12), for example in the Provence region in France, in Belgium, Denmark, Germany and the United Kingdom; support for the promotion of local and organic food at regional and national level (13); national grants for campaigns on fair tourism or the Clean Clothes Campaign (14); support for organic farmers or for the conversion to organic production (15); support for CSR initiatives or the promotion of labour and social standards (16); support for the development and promotion of voluntary labels in Switzerland or the promotion of consumer schools in, for example, Belgium.

Other support includes providing training for farmers who want to adopt the CSA model or state organised conferences on CSR (both in Belgium); the establishment of working groups for sustainable consumption or a council for sustainable development (the Czech Republic, Germany); the documentation of ethical labour practices of businesses (Denmark); an initiative which promotes sustainable consumption practices among the general public (17); a legislative project for the promotion of sustainable agriculture (18) and a law concerning land-use regulation (19) which reserves a certain surface of land for agriculture (both in Switzerland).

European Union support for the sector can also be found in different legal initiatives such as European labels (20), directives which forbid misleading advertising (21), and communications which promote core labour standards and social governance (22). Furthermore, the European Union provides financial support for awareness-raising campaigns, for research and for the improvement of the structure of networks. Some legislation and European Court decisions (23) allow better integration of environmental and social aspects into public procurement procedures.

c. Commitment of public authorities to the sector of responsible consumption

The last class comprises local and national decisions through which different public authorities show that they are engaged in the sector of responsible consumption. Below are some examples of this.

Germany’s commitment includes not only environmental but also social aspects for public procurement. Thus the Munich City Council decided (24) that certain products, for example orange juice and carpets, should be tendered for with respect to the ILO Convention 182 against child labour. Since 2002 the City Council of Düsseldorf only buys service clothing for the fire department which has been produced under conditions which respect international labour law standards. Germany’s Federal Environmental Agency (Umweltbundesamt) was the first public institution which was certified according to the EU Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS II), enabling an evaluation of their environmental performance. A commitment of public authorities to responsible consumption can be also seen in the organisation of international conferences for the training of public authorities for sustainable consumption. An example of this was an international meeting for mayors on renewable energies that was held in May 2004 in Germany. Likewise, the European Congress for Local Authority Environmental Officers, held in July 2004 in Germany, helped to increase the commitment of local authorities to responsible consumption.

At European level, the involvement of eighteen European local authorities (25) can be found in the Procura+ initiative which aims to establish a united campaign for fair and environmentally sound public procurement. The European Union recently committed itself by participating in EMAS (26) which provides a management tool to evaluate its environmental performance.

From Esther Petridis, Trends in Social Cohesion n°12, "Ethical, solidarity-based citizen involvement in the economy : a prerequisite for social cohesion", Council of Europe publishing, 2004, pp. 99/104

Categories of available information
Ethical and solidarity-based finance
Fair Trade
Responsible consumption

1) They comprise for example contracts of consumer groups with “responsible” farmers, responsible tourism, public consumer schools, public “responsible” labels (e.g. social, environmental) for products or companies, organic, ecological agriculture initiatives, actions against misleading advertising, CSR of enterprises, establishment of different organs for sustainable consumption or the development of sustainable policies, consumer activities against genetically modified products, introduction of “ethical principles” into public procurement or the promotion of sustainable consumption practices within the general public.
2) For example in Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic or Poland. Croatia: public environmentally friendly label; the Czech Republic: law concerning the support of the development of sales and the utilisation of ecological products; Poland: Act on Public Procurement supplies and works, Act on ecological, organic farming.
3) Austria: National Strategy on Sustainable Development; Belgium: Federal Plan for Sustainable Development 2000-2004; Germany: Report of an Enquete-Commission on responsible consumption; the Netherlands: parliamentary request concerning a sustainable purchase policy; Spain: strategic plan for consumer protection; Strategy of Sustainable Development; Switzerland: Motion No. 02.3519 for an ethical certificate for enterprises; the United Kingdom: strategy for sustainable development; framework for sustainable consumption and production.
4) Examples: the Draft Agro-Ecological Programme in Bulgaria, which designs different financial advantages for agriculture producers in order to encourage them to keep applying agricultural practices aiming at the preservation of the environment; law proposal concerning the prohibition of GMO in the Canton Tessin in Geneva in Switzerland; the law project concerning the prohibition of misleading advertising with regard to social conditions of production in Belgium.
5) Consumer Policy Strategy 2002-2006 – Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, COM(2002) 208 final; documents which welcome the different social labelling initiatives or point out the possibility of adopting a social label at European level (EP); Green Paper of the European Commission (2001) which proposed with trade unions and NGOs the introduction of a label for the social responsibility of enterprises; Proposal for an EU Action Plan, 12.2.2004: promotes measures for sustainability (also for public procurement).
6) For example labels for ecologically produced products, for products and services which are less damaging to the environment or for environmentally sound tourism or for environmentally sound clothing (Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Scandinavia [Finland, Norway, Sweden], Switzerland or the United Kingdom).
7) Belgium Social Label, the Danish Social Index, Ireland with its label for human resource development or the Italian “lavoro etico“ social quality label.
8) The Ministerialblatt for the Federal State Nordrhein-Westfalen, No. 31 (9.5.1985) furthers for example the observance of products with environmental labels in the public procurement process. Regulations for green public procurement can be found also in the law for the promotion of recycling management and safeguard of environmentally friendly waste disposal. Many German towns and cities have their own guidelines and criteria for environmentally friendly procurement.
9) See website:
10) See website:
11) See website:
12) Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and Association pour le Maintien de l’Agriculture Paysanne (AMAP) stand for the promotion of contracts between consumer groups and farmers.
13) The region of Toscana (legge regionale No. 11/2002) promotes the consumption of agricultural, biological products in canteens and messes of public schools, universities and hospitals to further health. The United Kingdom (Scotland) has funded (63,5 million pounds sterling) a programme of school meal reform which is targeted to provide local organic food.
14) Liechtenstein has provided grants for the NGO “Arbeitskreis Tourismus und Entwicklung”; an intermediate monitoring project of the Clean Clothes Campaign is supported and co-financed by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.
15) In Switzerland organic farming is promoted with direct payments to Swiss farmers and marketing contributions for the promotion of organic products on the Swiss market. In the Netherlands the “Regeling stimulering biologische productiemethode” provides financial support during the conversion transition period of two years.
16) Development of an CSR Index in the Netherlands; grants by regional public authorities for businesses willing to implement CSR; Switzerland funds projects which help firms to adapt their labour conditions to internationally accepted ILO labour and social standards.
17) See website:
18) Regulation of the Grand Conseil of the Republic and the canton of Geneva, PL 9122, M 1474-A, which favours sustainable agriculture taking into account, for example, social and environmental aspects, biodiversity (in force: 1.1.2005).
19) Law concerning land-use regulation, 22.6.1979, FF 1996 FIII, 485, RS 700, RO 2000 2042; Decree concerning land use-regulation (27.6.2000, 700.1).
20) The EU environmental label, symbolised by a flower, for 21 different categories (e.g. washing machines, textiles, tourist accommodation): Council Regulation EEC 880/92, and the EU-Oeko-Regulation for ecologically produced products – 2092/1991 and 1804/1999.
21) Council Directive 84/450/EEC (10.9.1984).
22) COM (2001) 416.
23) Directive Public Procurement, EP 2.12.2003, Commission May 2000 (IP/00/461); allows national authorities to use appropriate and objective environmental and social criteria transparently for the public good without creating scope for arbitrary and unfair contract awards based on issues unconnected with the works or services to be provided; directive on the coordination of procedures for the award of public works contracts, public supply and service contracts 2004/18/EC; EC COM(2001)274 “green procurement”; European Court Decision C-513/99; European Court Decision c-225/98 (26/9/2000).
24) Resolution of the Munich Council administration and staff board (17.7.2002).
25) Amongst them the town of Ravensburg in Germany; see website:
26) Since 2001 EMAS has been open to all economic sectors including public and private services (Regulation [EC] No. 761/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 March 2001).