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Boosting sustainable consumption and behaviour: the eco-chèque, a Belgian practice involving employers into public policy

Sixth session in the cycle on

 

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and 

Human Resources (HR): policy complementarities within companies

 

Click here to view a summary of the event

 

24 April 2018

 

Speakers

Dr. Hugo-Maria Schally

Head of Unit, DG Environment, Sustainable production, Products and Consumption Unit

European Commission

 

Rosa Maria Mammolito

Public affairs

Edenred

 

Moderator

Nicolas Vincent

 

Behavioural change in European citizens’ consumption patterns is a real challenge. Such evolution needs to be supported by a variety of stakeholders to ensure the broadest uptake.

Private and public employers can indeed be a relay point to their employees, fellow citizens, to support an environmental cause. Therefore, employers can combine their sustainable goals and CSR involvement with a positive HR policy while offering incentives to their employees. The eco-chèque in Belgium is one among several tools at the disposal of innovative companies wishing to balance their desire to be environmentally responsible and their need to boost employee motivation.

 

Providing tools to consumers to make them stakeholders in the circular economy

 

Hugo-Maria Schally, from the European Commission’s DG Environment, explained that the transition to a circular economy relies on many factors: if some are inherent to consumption patterns, Dr Schally added, “it also depends on whether all stages in the economic cycle facilitate the switch to circular consumption behaviours.”

 

In the circular economy, consumption represents a crucial stage as producers’ supply and consumers’ demand meet on the market. This is where “the producer of the good or the service will actually react to the wishes of the consumer” while “the consumer will have the power to influence where and what will happen, where the product will go and what the product will become at the end of its first useful life”, said Dr Schally. In other words, “consumers need to have access to the right tools to make the right choices” – bringing great responsibility to the retail sector – but also “that products need to come accompanied by the right information, i.e. understandable and easy to access”, added the panelist. 

 

Dr Schally also stressed that a circular product should convey more than a environmental-friendly idea. In his view, it “should also be a product of quality”, where consumers find their interest not only by contributing to a sustainable world but also by acquiring a product that is durable, that can be easily repaired, upgraded or dismantled at the end of the product’s life cycle.

 

In this light, Dr Schally explained the role of public policy regarding consumption in a circular economy on both ends: “giving consumers additional tools to make the right choice” and, at the same time, “giving companies tools to communicate to consumers about the environmental sustainability or circular characteristics of their goods and services.” 

 

Providing decision-making tools will transform consumers into actors in the circular economy. Once empowered, taking an active part in the process, “they can stand on their own.” They might need a lot of tools to work out their decision but “we are encouraging all practices that can actually help consumers to make the right choices in that direction”, he concluded.

 

Rosa Maria Mammolito from Edenred Belgium presented the Belgian eco-chèque to the audience: launched in 2009, originally with a value of €125, now, reaching €250, net of any taxes, the eco-chèque is available to employers to increase their staff’s purchasing power: the eco-chèque can be spent in over 10,000 retailers on a series of goods or services that are officially recognised on a list deemed as sustainable.

 

To Ms Mammolito the eco-chèque is in line with Dr Schally’s view on “empowering” the consumer. “The eco-chèque”, added Ms Mammolito, “is a result of a social dialogue at national level and therefore has the support of public institutions, trade unions, workers and employers.” While being implemented, she added, “local merchants also took a part in the design of the solution.” This made the eco-chèque, according to Ms Mammolito, “a social and inclusive solution involving various parties”, with 80,000 employers distributing the eco-chèque as an incentive tool to 1.6 million employees who see an increase in their purchasing power. 

 

The list of goods and services is revised every two years, by the social partners. Certain products appear on the list almost automatically, such as the ones tagged with the eco-label. Services such as shoe repairs had been added, because they help extend the life cycle of produits.

 

Dr Schally responded positively: “Eco-chèque is an interesting concept as it comprises products as well as services.” Dr Schally focused on the selection process, insisting on the challenge of ensuring that the analysis about adding a product or service on the list “needs to be based on criteria that the consumer can actually relate to.” 

 

Ms Mammolito explained the eco-chèque acts as a guarantee of sustainability, where social partners have checked the compliance of goods and services with certain criteria. The panelist added a lot of work lies also in the hands of the retail side: “retailers themselves also inform consumers about what they can buy with eco-chèque and what is ecological in their store.”

 

Traditionally, for public authorities, Dr Schally explained, there are several means to change consumption patterns: taxation is one of them and so are regulation and procurement. Dr Schally asked, “to what degree does the state actually intervene in the managing of that one or in what way does the state actually benchmark the objectives of the scheme?” Ms Mammolito replied the tax incentive was actually embedded into the product, as eco-chèque are net of any tax. An incentive, that is strong to Belgian tax payers: “in 2017”, Ms Mammolito added, “we had 242 million euros spent through eco-chèques in Belgium, against 204 million in 2015.” There are now 57 activity sectors proposing eco-chèque to their clients when there were only 43 in 2014.

 

Ghislaine Gerbier, European Coordinator at the European Association of Cancer Leagues, asked whether one could expect higher nominal values for the eco-chèque, as the voucher being “tax exempted that's interesting for everyone.” To Ms Mammolito, this is where public policy comes into play, precisely, “it’s a political choice in the end: the government actually subsidises this by foregoing tax revenue” and in this way, the Belgian government is supporting certain consumption behaviour. It is also a place for social dialogue: social partners, eco-chèque partners meet with government representatives to discuss what needs to be subsidised or which behaviour to promote. 

 

 

Some challenges exist to ensure a valuable empowerment of citizens: from communication to market surveillance

 

Julia Stark from the Brussels regional office of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern asked the panellists how, in these times of non-stop information channels, consumers could be provided with the right amount of information. This is especially true when dealing with technical information regarding environmental issues. Ms Mammolito answered that in the case of the eco-chèque, the most frequent question from consumers and employees involves what they can purchase with this €250 voucher. “We address their needs by giving them the tools to go and search what they can buy with these eco-chèques”, said Ms Mammolito. This takes place online or at the retailers where consumers are simply informed on the list of products that meet the eco-chèque criteria without any information overload.

Dr Schally agreed: “the key is in creating trust by the consumer.” He continued: “if you are a consumer trying to behave responsibly today you definitely have too much conflicting and unverifiable information.” If “the traditional way of simplifying is labelling”, Dr Schally raised also the issue of “overlabeling”, where consumers are then facing so many labels on the packaging that they become crammed under too much information and, again, it can impede their judgement.

 

For Dr Schally, the real challenge for an incentive solution like the eco-chèque, relies on “providing consumers the necessary information that puts them at ease so that they take the tools seriously.” This involves verification and market surveillance, which both help to build reputation.

In this line, Ms Mammolito added that, precisely, social partners evaluate the system and analyse it every year. They look at how it performs, how employers use it, how employees receive the eco-chèque and spend them, “and they also look at a number of merchants which belong in the system.” Ms Mammolito added there are some “mystery shoppings” to check that the rules are faithfully respected. “This is something important,” Ms Mammolito added “because those controls help to evaluate the system and to make sure the eco-chèques are used for what they are meant to be used.” Social partners are also involved in reviewing the list of goods and services that is revised every two years. Finally, Ms Mammolito added there was a study in the making regarding the ecological footprint.

 

The will to exchange practices at EU level

 

Céline De Waele, Senior Manager at Ernst and Young, asked if the Commission would consider eco-chèque as a case for best practice and if there would be any plan or thoughts to have similar systems in other countries promoted by the Commission. “We are in the process of collecting information about best practices”, replied Dr Schally. 

 

In the context of the implementation of the circular economy action plan, Dr Schally explained, the Commission has set up a circular economy stakeholder platform where the Commission interacts with stakeholders.

 

Dr Schally added that they were paying attention to national programmes, such as the project de transition énergétique in France and “we are looking at initiatives such as the EcoCheque as well as interesting laboratories at the national level.” 

 

The platform is based on meetings and conferences but also online discussions. Since the platform is currently at the stage of gathering candidate projects, Dr Schally invited the audience: “if any of you have good practices go to the website, send us your good practices and if it's not just purely commercial we'll publish them.”

 

 

Logistics

When

Thursday 4 April, 2019
08.30 to 10.00

CET

 

Where

Radisson RED Brussels

Idaliestraat 35
1050 Brussels, Belgium

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Policies & Practices