Europe for Consumers - sustainable and fair
Europe for consumers – sustainable and fair. We consumer advocates are convinced that Europe has even more potential for consumers. Consumers need smart and forward-looking regulation at the EU level more than ever as they try to navigate their lives in these times of overlapping crises.
In the coming legislative period, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the Council of the European Union have the opportunity to charter the course towards an economy that features economical, ecological and social sustainability and a society that focuses on the needs of consumers.
This page provides an overview of the consumer policy issues that vzbv believes are crucial to achieving these objectives.
Source: © Dominik Butzmann / vzbvRamona PopExecutive Director of the Federation of German Consumer Organisations
From a consumer perspective, EU policy has largely been a success story. Yet, one that is far from over. Europe, keep working for consumers! We consumer advocates are convinced of this. The challenge today is to ensure that future generations still have consumption choices.
Key recommendations for the 2024 european elections
Anyone who surfs the internet leaves data traces. Companies use these traces to profile users, and subsequently use these profiles for targeted advertising. This profiling jeopardises the protection of personal data and privacy, undermines IT security, contributes to the spread of disinformation, enables manipulation and tampering, and promotes discrimination.
We therefore call for a ban on profiling for advertising purposes. Consumers should be able to use the internet and their smartphones safely, without companies collecting their data for advertising purposes. We urge the European legislator to adopt legislation to reform the digital advertising market. This legislation should address new technological developments as well as manipulation of consumers and discrimination towards them in order to provide lasting protection in the digital market.
Consumers are increasingly at risk of cyberattacks that target their bank accounts. In theory, the rules in place, including strong customer authentication, protect them against such attacks. Payment service providers must pay for damages caused by transactions that the customer has not authorised. In practice, however, they often circumvent this obligation and leave consumers out in the cold – and some of them even lose their entire savings.
Effective liability legislation is needed to protect consumers’ bank accounts. Banks would then have a strong incentive to prevent unauthorised payments. The European legislator should eliminate all loopholes that payment service providers use to evade liability, such as imposing due diligence obligations upon consumers that cannot be fulfilled. Suitable legislation should prevent payment service providers from passing on damage to consumers that was caused by fraud. Consumers must be confident that their savings are safe.
Transformation and expansion of the electricity market is needed in order to ensure that renewable energy sources make up a large part of the future energy supply. This transformation can only succeed together with consumers. The European Union needs to design a common and coordinated electricity market with cross-border transmission lines. At the same time, infrastructure costs must be kept as low as possible so that electricity remains affordable for consumers.
Low prices for electricity generated from renewable energy sources must benefit consumers, regardless of whether they rent an apartment, live in their own house, or reside in the countryside or the city. The electricity market must be designed in a way that promotes consumer participation in the energy market and better coordinates electricity generation and consumption. Consumers themselves should be able to contribute to this process, for example with digitally controllable consumer devices such as heat pumps or wall boxes for electric cars. These devices should be integrated into the electricity market in a consumer-friendly way. Moreover, companies should not benefit from windfall profits.
The demand for electricity will increase due to a large number of electric cars, while the amount of renewable energy will remain limited even with a massive expansion of renewable energy sources. To prevent the transport sector from consuming excessive amounts of electricity, e-vehicles must use electricity as efficiently as possible.
The European legislator must promptly adopt ambitious efficiency targets for e-cars. This is not only about consumption when the car is running. It is essential to consider a car's entire life cycle – from raw material extraction to disposal. The aim must be to bring smaller, lighter and more economical vehicles onto the market in order to reduce energy consumption and costs for consumers.
The majority of consumers want to eat healthy food. However, when they look at product packaging in the supermarket, they are confronted with a mass of information in small print. It is almost impossible to judge, for example, which type of muesli is the healthiest. Many foods are even advertised as being particularly healthy, even though they contain too much sugar, fat or salt.
To make the healthy option the easy option, consumers must be able to recognise healthier foods at a glance. To achieve this, we strongly recommend introducing the Nutri- Score as a mandatory and uniform label on all food products throughout the EU. In addition, nutrient profiles should regulate the maximum amount of sugar, fat or salt a product may contain in order to make claims about its health benefits.
From shampoo and coffee through to travel, consumers are bombarded with advertising that promises sustainability. The focus is not only on environmentally or climate-friendly production, but also on social claims such as 'child labour-free', 'fair living wages' or 'fair trade'. Currently, however, there are hardly any legal requirements for advertising that focuses on social sustainability.
Consumers must be confident that advertising claims promising social sustainability are actually true. vzbv urges the European legislator to introduce binding rules on how social claims have to be substantiated and under which conditions they may be used.
Further vzbv demands
Consumers need smart and forward-looking regulation at the EU level more than ever as they try to navigate their lives in these times of overlapping crises. It is not (only) about today’s consumers, but about setting a course that ensures that future generations still have consumption choices. A forward-looking European consumer policy must therefore consistenly focus on economical, ecological and social sustainability.
Sustainable consumer policy stabilises the economic system in the long term and protects consumers from risks. These are key components in a sustainable economic system.
Large telecommunications network operators want content providers such as Amazon, Google, Netflix and Spotify to pay them a fee to use the digital infrastructure. The network operators use various arguments to justify this demand: sometimes the return on investment is too low, other times it is to finance further investment, or it is because maintaining the digital infrastructure is very expensive due to large amounts of data throughput. Such data fees would have many drawbacks for consumers. Operators could price different types of data differently and thereby stop treating it equally. This would threaten an open and free internet (net neutrality), media diversity, and competition. In the worst case, consumers would end up paying more for services and have less choice.
vzbv therefore strongly opposes the introduction of such fees. The European Commission should not propose any legislation that would allow operators to impose network fees.
Certificates for sustainable consumption, such as 'Grüner Knopf' (Green Button) and 'Blauer Engel' (Blue Angel), can help consumers identify sustainable products. However, it is often completely unclear how reliable these certifications are or whether they really ensure sustainable production.
We urge the European legislator to adopt a comprehensive legal framework for sustainability certification that merits consumer trust. It should define minimum criteria for standard systems and certifiers. Furthermore, mandatory accreditation and a liability mechanism for faulty certification are required.
International trade law takes precedence over domestic laws. If the EU commits itself to certain practices in a trade agreement but subsequently adopts EU laws contrary to that agreement, trade partners can bring a case before the World Trade Organization's Dispute Settlement Body or another bilaterally agreed body. This also applies to consumer protection legislation, which can then be declared a 'barrier to trade'. This can have a negative impact on EU legislative processes and often prevents comprehensive, long-term consumer protection.
The European Commission should negotiate international trade agreements transparently. That way, civil society can advocate for a high level of consumer protection in the EU. Especially with regard to commitments concerning new or future technologies, such as artificial intelligence, the EU should not limit its regulatory leeway by prematurely entering into international agreements.
Existing regulations often fail to cover new technological developments and innovative digital business models. However, it is vital that digital policy also provides answers to innovations such as ChatGPT and the Metaverse. The EU’s major digital regulatory achievements (Digital Markets Act & Digital Services Act, Data Act, Data Governance Act, Artificial Intelligence Act) must keep pace with the rapidly developing market.
The European legislator should continuously assess the suitability of the legal framework for the digital world, for example by conducting evaluations and surveys, and ensure rigorous implementation and enforcement of the applicable rules.
Consumers want to consume in an environmentally friendly way and use products longer. However, when buying a product, consumers can very rarely tell how environmentally friendly it is, how durable it is and whether it is repairable.
The European legislator plans to introduce digital product passports in the coming years to make such data available. Consumers would then be able to look up information about spare parts and a repairability score via a QR code, for example. For consumers, it is important that these product passports are easy to use and that the information is reliable. We urge the European legislator to quickly develop and adopt the first product passports with reliable, comprehensive, and easy-to-understand consumer information. Businesses should not be solely responsible for this task.
If consumers suffer harm due to a company in another EU member state, they must have the possibility to take legal action via a court in their home country. This is not currently possible. For example, if you want to bring an action against the French state railway company for cancelled or delayed trains, you must do so via a court in France. Similarly, if holidaymakers want to take legal action due to problems at a holiday home, they have to do it in the country where the holiday home is located. The situation with regard to collective legal action is unclear.
Consumers must, without exception, be allowed to take legal action via the courts in their home country, and themselves be subject to legal action only via these same courts. It is vital to remove the exception for transport contracts in the EU Regulation on Jurisdiction in Cross-Border Cases. In addition, holiday home rentals must be classified as a consumer contract. Furthermore, it is essential to create a new area of jurisdiction for collective legal action that is in line with the place of jurisdiction for the related consumer claims.
Connected and automated vehicles process personal data, such as the data of pedestrians in the vicinity of the vehicle. This data is protected by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). When buying a car, consumers must be confident that the vehicle and its functions are compliant with data protection laws, otherwise they expose themselves to a liability risk. To date, however, the authorities responsible for granting approval do not check the data protection conformity of vehicle types.
The relevant authorities should not approve vehicles that are not fully compliant with data protection laws. The European legislator must therefore adopt legislation to adapt the EU Type Approval Regulation for passenger cars in such a way that vehicles comply with safety and environmental requirements as well as with the GDPR.
European consumers depend on a few non-European payment providers such as PayPal, Visa, and Mastercard for cross-border payments. There is hardly any competition or European alternatives, which leads to high costs for consumers. While euro cash payments and SEPA credit transfers work across the eurozone, electronic payments are still fragmented across member states.
The European legislator must continue to push for the introduction of pan-European payment solutions. A digital euro and pan-European, consumer-oriented payment solutions would make cross-border payments cheaper and more inclusive. The digital euro must be free of charge for users, cost-efficient, and designed to enhance privacy and inclusion with respect to digital services.
Private consumption has a significant influence on the environment and climate. How consumers travel, invest, and eat helps determine whether ecological transformation is successful. Surveys show time and again that consumers want to contribute to more ecological sustainability – but they should not face this task alone. The European Union must create a general framework for ecologically sustainable consumption.
People who want to invest their money sustainably look for investment products that promise sustainability. Unfortunately, however, the products do not always live up to their claims, and it is difficult for consumers to recognise empty promises of sustainability. This makes investing in sustainable investment products difficult or even impossible.
The national competent authorities must strictly and effectively supervise the market of sustainable financial products. To this end, we urge the European legislator to expand the Sustainable Finance Disclosure Regulation. Strict and effective supervision in the area of sustainable investments is only possible if the regulation establishes a catalogue of sanctions as well as inspection obligations and the powers of supervisory authorities in EU member states. Providers must be effectively sanctioned if they mislead consumers with false sustainability promises.
Passengers whose trips entail various forms of transport, for example a train ride before changing to a long-distance bus, have so far been disadvantaged when it comes to passenger rights because there are often no through tickets for the entire journey. Liability for missed connections due to delays or cancellations is often excluded. This makes using public transport less instead of more attractive.
To better protect such travellers, vzbv urges the European legislator to complement transport- specific passenger rights, such as EU rail passenger rights and EU air passenger rights, with binding rules for multimodal journeys. Voluntary cooperation on the part of companies can only be the starting point. We urge the European Union to create binding rules that include all forms of transport throughout Europe.
Consumers are far too often exposed to harmful substances and potentially dangerous chemicals. Plasticisers in drinking bottles, mineral oil in chocolate and formaldehyde in coffee cups are just a few examples. The results of tests conducted by food authorities show that health-damaging residues that migrate from packaging and tableware into food are repeatedly found in foodstuffs.
Consumers must be able to rely on the safety of food packaging and tableware. The European legislator must complete the long overdue revision of the Regulation on Food Contact Materials. The revised rules should include a clear ban on particularly harmful substances, an authorisation procedure for food contact materials, and a standardised approach to labelling.
Consumers who pay attention to carbon emissions when buying a car can easily make the wrong choice. That is because the current energy labelling for cars rates them within their weight class. Consequently, SUVs that perform well within their weight class may receive a better label than a small car, even though SUVs emit significantly more CO2 in absolute terms. Consumers might even choose a car that emits more CO2 because it appears to have a more positive label rating. The current approach to labelling does not consider harmful emissions, nor does it take into account the specific features of new types of engines, such as those used in battery- powered electric vehicles.
Information for car buyers must be easy to understand, realistic, and uniform throughout Europe. To this end, the European legislator should fundamentally revise and replace the Directive on the availability of consumer informationon on fuel economy and CO2 emissions in respect of the marketing of new passenger cars with a regulation. Information on energy consumption must no longer be greenwashed by other parameters, such as vehicle mass. Furthermore, the label should integrate pollutant emissions, realistic range information for e-cars, and information on battery charging time and durability.
Socially sustainable consumer policies ensure the participation of all groups in society. It is vital to protect consumers from financial risks and unfair commercial practices.
Advisors who recommend financial or insurance- based investment products often recommend products that earn the advisors the most money, instead of the one best-suited to the client. This is because advisors earn commission on the products they sell, which creates a clear conflict of interests. Consumers receive offers that earn advisors the highest sales commission, instead of good products truly suited to the consumer. It is essential to resolve this conflict of interests by legally prohibiting the use of commissions in the financial advice sector.
Consumers should pay fees directly to financial advisors instead of paying for advice indirectly through sales commissions. Consumers can then be confident they will receive the products that are actually best suited to them.
Basic payment accounts should ensure that low-income consumers also have access to digital payment transactions. However, they are not always offered at reasonable prices that would reflect their important role as a socially sustainable policy tool. On average, German banks charge 108.45 euros annually for an online account and 148.11 euros a year for an account with in-person service. People with low incomes may thus not be able to afford a basic bank account at all.
The European legislator must adapt the pricing rules in the Payment Accounts Directive in order to prevent excessively high fees for basic payment accounts.
Far too often, consumers stand at the pharmacy counter and do not get their urgently needed medicine due to supply shortages. At the same time, inflation is driving up the prices of medicine. As essential goods, medicine must not be subject solely to the rules of the market.
The European legislator must reform pharmaceutical legislation in a way that prevents supply shortages and ensures that medicines are always available.
Suppliers of food supplements often advertise their products as miracle cures. However, official food controls repeatedly identify products that make illegal health claims and contain questionable ingredients and dosages of active ingredients that are sometimes far too high and harmful to health.
It is vital to define quality standards and purity requirements at the European level in order to protect consumers. We urge the European Commission to propose maximum levels for vitamins and minerals in food supplements, and to define rules for plant-based products in the EU Directive on Food Supplements and the EU Regulation on Food Fortification.
European air passenger rights are a real success story for consumers. However, since 2013, a European Commission proposal for a reform of air passenger rights has been pending that would greatly reduce the current level of consumer protection. The coronavirus pandemic has shown how important strong passenger rights are. Airlines forced their customers to become involuntary creditors and refunded ticket prices only months later, which was illegal. Money paid in advance for expensive long-haul flights was often irretrievably lost due to airline bankruptcies.
We urge the European Commission to withdraw its 2013 proposal that would limit air passenger rights, and instead make a new proposal to strengthen air passenger rights, close existing loopholes, and codify the case law of the Court of Justice of the European Union. In addition, we call on the Commission to introduce mandatory insolvency protection and put an end to full prepayment for flight bookings.
General terms and conditions (GTCs) are becoming longer, more complex, and less transparent. Many consumers shy away from reading GTCs and conclude contracts without understanding the contract terms. Companies, on the other hand, know their terms and conditions very well and refer to the clauses in the event of dispute.
New, fair, and digital standards are needed to help consumers better navigate GTCs and thereby their contractual relationships. If consumers are to agree to GTCs, they must be able to recognise the most important points immediately with the help of a summary in order to better understand the conditions of the contract. The standardised product information sheet in the insurance sector could serve as a model. We call on the European legislator to require companies to provide consumers with a similar, easy-to-understand summary of the most important contractual terms and conditions.