The Agenda builds on the Commission’s 2018 New Deal for Consumers (New Deal) and sets out a bold long-term vision up to 2025, focusing on five priority areas: green transition, digital transition, enforcement of consumer rights, protecting vulnerable consumer groups, and international cooperation.
These priorities were the subject of an open public consultation and are consistent with, for example, the trend towards greater scrutiny of businesses’ approaches to sustainability around the world and EU regulators’ approaches to addressing the behavioural elements of online consumer harms.
However, the Agenda also reveals a more outward looking approach to EU consumer protection, emphasising the importance of strong international cooperation among regulatory authorities and actors in the supply chain and, in particular, intensifying product safety cooperation with China.
The Agenda will no doubt be viewed by the Commission and various EU regulators as a strategically opportune moment given the apparent challenges they faced responding to the pandemic, which resulted in various businesses around Europe offering voluntary commitments. Given this, and for those familiar with the New Deal (particularly the Directive on Representative Actions, which will be formally adopted in the coming weeks), it is not surprising that enforcement and redress is at the heart of the Agenda.
Sustainability and digitalisation are driving the current Commission’s mandate, and the Agenda is consistent with these areas of focus.
Building on previously announced initiatives regarding durability and recyclability of products, the Commission plans to legislate on sustainable corporate governance, including potentially human rights and environmental due diligence requirements in the supply chain. The Commission’s aim is to equip consumers with better information on the sustainability of products and to fight practices such as early obsolescence and ‘greenwashing’.
Initiatives to fight early obsolescence and promote more durable products are focussed on specific groups of goods and services, such as textiles, packaging and electronics. For example, they aim to ensure that electronic devices are designed for repair, reuse and recycling, and that consumers have a ‘right to repair’ them including software updates.
This follows an increase in recent enforcement against misleading consumers in the online space, including initiatives by the UK Competition and Markets and the Netherlands Consumer and Markets Authority to tackle misleading sustainability claims’ (see earlier posts on the UK and Netherlands initiatives). It is notable that the Commission also intends immediately to start working with trade associations and businesses to encourage voluntary pledges to support sustainable consumption, beyond what is required by existing EU law.
In the digital sphere, the Commission aims to tackle online commercial practices, which, in its view, have the potential to affect informed consumer choice and decision-making processes. The Agenda notes that data collection and processing combined with analysis of consumers’ behaviour and their innate cognitive biases may limit the effectiveness of the current rules designed to protect consumers in the digital environment. The Commission intends to release additional guidance on how existing consumer law instruments can be used to tackle these issues and assess whether additional legislation is required in the medium-term. We expect this will see increased focus by EU regulators on the way economic operators present their websites (for example, accessibility of key terms, pre-ticked boxes for consent, product reviews, advertising, and the use of so-called ’dark’ patterns).
The Commission will also establish rules governing the digital economy, for example through the upcoming Digital Services Act, and requirements for Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a follow up to its White Paper on AI.
Effective enforcement of consumer rights
Enhanced enforcement action by regulators, stronger sanctions, and an effective mechanism for mass consumer claims feature prominently in the Commission’s plans.