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Keynote Cateautje Hijmans van den Bergh OECD International Consumer Conference

OECD International Consumer Conference – 16 June 2021 Keynote Cateautje Hijmans van den Bergh

First of all, I would like to congratulate Mr. Mathias Cormann with his appointment as Secretary-General for the OECD and I wish him a successful tenure. Also, I would like to thank the CCP Secretariat for organizing this great event and for giving me the opportunity to speak here. I believe the dialogue between policy makers and consumer protection authorities is of the utmost importance when designing policies for the necessary transition to sustainable production and consumption. Together, we can appraise the potential of current consumer protection law to that end and can complement existing rules to help consumers make informed sustainable choices.

The Netherlands Authority for Consumers and Markets has committed itself to contribute to sustainable consumption and production, as reflected in Sustainable Development Goal 12. Of course within the scope of the powers attributed to us. This pledge to take sustainable welfare and the wellbeing of the next generations into account is anchored in our mission statement: “Markets that work well for people and businesses, now and in the future.”

In practice, ACM has two goals in this respect:

  1. ACM aims to enable consumers to play their role in this transition. Research shows that consumers are increasingly focused on sustainability as a factor in their purchasing behavior. However, research also shows consumers often do not trust sustainability claims or find it difficult to check these. As a result it is difficult for them to verify what products are truly environmentally friendly. By eliminating false claims, consumers will be empowered to make sustainably responsible choices again, thus disciplining the market.
  2. Secondly we want to ensure that sustainability claims by businesses are trustworthy and founded in facts. We notice that sustainability claims are often vague and sometimes deceptive. Appearing green sometimes seems more important than actually being green. We want businesses to stop greenwashing practices in order to allow for truly sustainable businesses to stand out.

In order to support our efforts and provide clarity to consumers, the business community and civil society, the ACM recently published a Guidance on sustainability claims. In this Guidance, ACM applies Unfair Commercial Practices law in concrete examples and five ‘rules of thumb’. For example, ACM states that businesses must substantiate their sustainability claims with facts and keep these up-to-date. You could call this: no data, no claim. As a next step, the ACM recently announced that it has started investigating sustainability claims in the energy, dairy and clothing industry. This announcement was accompanied by a warning letter to 170 Dutch businesses in these three sectors, urging them to scrutinize the accuracy of their sustainability claims. These actions, have been well-received by many stakeholders and the media and have spurred dialogue. The ACM expects that this public scrutiny will stimulate businesses to remove unsubstantiated green claims in favour of substantiated claims In the event of insufficient compliance, we will not hesitate to intervene by conducting formal interventions.

In addition to these actions in our national jurisdiction, ACM seeks to combine strength and knowledge with European and international cooperation. We want to make sure that also internationally the sustainability bar is set high. With this in mind ACM stepped up and works together with the CMA as a co-lead for the ICPEN project on misleading environmental claims. Also, sustainability is one of the key themes of the European Commission’s New Consumer Agenda and increasingly a priority in the CPC network.

Having said that, I also have to admit that general consumer protection law has its limits and could be more in line with the goal of sustainable production and consumption. For example, if a product fails within a certain timeframe, consumers have the right to a new product. Repairing a product would be a more circular option, but is currently not always what consumers opt for. Additional policies will be needed to create an environment in which consumers can make well informed and truly sustainable choices, and to help regulators monitoring compliance. In this respect, I am delighted to see policy initiatives in several jurisdictions that aim at standardized information about environmental, climate and social impact of goods and further standardisation and (European) harmonisation of certification requirements. Fewer and more meaningful labels may lead to more clarity throughout markets.

We welcome initiatives, whether by the OECD, the EU and other national and international institutions, that support and strengthen the consumer protection community in its pursuit of more honest messaging on sustainability by the business community. We need efforts of all market players: consumers, businesses, and joint forces of policy makers and enforcement authorities. Together we can create a more sustainable world.