European Union: Eco-Design – Benefits And Challenges

Last Updated: 12 August 2014
Article by Laurent Ruessmann, Jochen Beck and David Haverbeke

Energy efficiency is one of the main pillars of the EU climate change initiative.  EU Member States committed to increase energy efficiency by 20% by 2020 (alongside a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 20% increase of energy consumption from renewable energy sources).  The eco-design rules aim at increasing energy efficiency and environmental performance of "energy related products"1 throughout their life cycle and thus have a key role in the achievement of the 2020 energy efficiency target.  As the 2012-14 Working Plan on eco-designs approaches its end, this article assesses the challenges and benefits the EU eco-design rules provide to stakeholders and climate protection.

The eco-design system

To achieve the aim of the eco-design framework, the European Commission, based on input from Member States and interested stakeholders, establishes three year working plans – the current one runs from 2012 to 2014 (the previous was from 2009 to 2011) – that set out priority lists of products to be made subject to eco-design rules.2  The plans focus on products that have significant environmental impact and are sold in the EU in volumes of over 200,000 units per year.  To date, the Commission has implemented or is in the process of implementing eco-design rules for 18 product groups.  Directive 2009/125/EC3 sets out the framework rules on the basis of which the EU Commission then establishes eco-design standards for specific product groups.

Producers or importers of products subject to eco-design rules must certify the conformity of their products with those rules, and affix a "CE" marking before the product is placed on the EU market and/or put into service.  

The EU eco-design rules are supported by the energy labelling requirements4 which are intended to provide EU citizens with information about the environmental performance of energy consuming products and thus provide incentives for the industry to further improve products and generate innovations beyond the minimum eco-design requirements.

Energy efficiency

Binding rules are already in place for televisions, glandless circulators, electric motors, household refrigerating appliances, no-load condition electric power consumption and average active sufficiency of external power supplies, various lamps, complex set-top boxes, standby and off mode electric power consumption of electrical and electronic household and office equipment, certain fans driven by motors, and water pumps.5  

In 2012, the European Commission estimated that by 2020 the first 13 eco-design measures will already represent annual savings of more than 12% of the EU electricity consumption in 2009 (the base year for the comparison).  The estimated savings are set out in the table below:

Ecodesign Measure


Estimated annual savings by 2020


December 2008

35 TWh

Simple set top boxes

February 2009

6 TWh

Street & Office Lighting

March 2009

38 TWh

Domestic Lighting

March 2009

39 TWh

External power supplies

April 2009

9 TWh

External motors

July 2009

135 TWh


July 2009

23 TWh

Domestic refrigerators

July 2009

4 TWh


July 2009

28 TWh

Domestic dishwashers

November 2010

2 TWh

Domestic washing machines

November 2010

1.5 TWh


March 2011

34 TWh

Air conditioners and comfort fans

March 2012

11 TWh


366 TWh

Source: European Commission website

Control and liability

The current eco-design system is based on self-certification.  However, the rules must not be mistaken for a mere voluntary code.  Products that do not comply with the eco-design standards are not allowed to be placed on the EU market.  

Additionally, products that do not comply with the standards and as a result are dangerous or cause damage to consumers, might trigger product liability under the EU consumer protection legislation, most importantly the EU rules on product liability and product safety, as well as the relevant laws at Member State level. 

The Product Liability Directive 85/374/EEC6 establishes a general liability of all parties involved in the manufacturing (and to a certain extent, the distribution) for damage caused to humans or property by a defective product.

The General Product Safety Directive 2001/95/EC7 and the additional sector specific product safety rules require producers (and importers) to put only safe products on the EU market, and to inform customers of any risks associated with the products.  Non-compliance with the EU product safety rules can result in recalls, financial penalties and other enforcement measures. 

When designing products to comply with the eco-design rules, manufacturers must therefore also continue to observe the above rules.  This may result in conflicts and could prove technically challenging.

Competitive advantage and barrier to international trade

In addition to benefits to consumers, eco-design requirements can also give producers an advantage vis-ŕ-vis market participants that do not comply with the standards.  Companies can request that the authorities remove non-compliant products of competitors from the market. 

With regard to imports, the need to adapt products to comply with the EU eco-design standards can result in additional costs and represent an additional hurdle in selling on the EU market.  Eco-design rules might therefore create a barrier to international trade, especially for low quality products manufactured in low cost countries.  In this regard, one of the stated objectives of the EU eco-design rules is to harmonise such rules on the EU internal market, and there is no clear provision for avoiding the erection of unjustified barriers to international trade.  In practice, the Commission encourages and aims to have broad participation in the rule-setting process, which should help to avoid the adoption of rules that hinder international trade.  Ultimately, however, third country producers which have substantial exports to the EU are well-advised both to participate in the rule-making process and to be vigilant regarding the practical impact of the final proposed rules on EU imports.  If the rules to be adopted are thought to be unjustified barriers to trade, there are legal steps that can be taken against those rules.


The eco-design rules can play an important role in the EU's effort to fight climate change and reduce energy consumption.  The Second Working Plan has not however made as much progress as initially anticipated, and there is still some way to go for the EU to achieve its targets.  While eco-design rules are certainly to the benefit of consumers, they can impose new challenges and costs for producers and represent barriers to trade.  The current proposals for the 2015-17 Working Plan address several products groups in which imports fulfil a substantial portion of the EU demand.  International trade considerations should therefore play an important ongoing role in shaping the content of any rules that the Commission will propose.  It will be up to third country producers, their governments, and their EU importers, to ensure that that is indeed the case

For further information on the EU eco-design rules and their application and development, please contact our team.


1. Energy-related products are: (i) energy-using products: products which use, generate, transfer or measure energy (electricity, gas, fossil fuel), such as boilers, computers, televisions, transformers, industrial fans, industrial furnaces, etc; and (ii) other energy related products (ERPs) which do not use energy but have an impact on energy consumption and can therefore contribute to saving energy, such as windows, insulation material, shower heads, taps, etc.

2. The 2015-2017 Working Plan is currently in preparation.  A first meeting with stakeholders was held in early July 2014.  Also in early July, an updated version of the Preparatory Study to establish the Ecodesign Working Plan 2015-2017 implementing Directive 2009/125/EC was published, identifying the following priority products:  aquarium equipment; domestic kitchen appliances; electric kettles; elevators, escalators and moving walkways; garden houses; greenhouses; gym and athletics articles; hand and hair dryers; hot food presentation and storage equipment; humidifiers and dehumidifiers; in-house networking equipment; inverters and converters; lawn and riding mowers; mobile phones /smart phones; patio heaters; swimming pool heaters; tertiary hot beverage equipment; video projectors; water, steam and sand cleaning appliances; and imaging equipment.  Further information is available at

3. Directive 2009/125/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for the setting of eco-design requirements for energy-related products.

4. Directive 2010/30/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 19 May 2010 on the indication by labelling and standard product information of the consumption of energy and other resources by energy-related products, OJ 2010 L153/1.

5. For several other products, the consultation processes with stakeholders from the industry, environmental organisations and the Member States are still ongoing, such as for heating and water-heating equipment, air-conditioning and ventilation systems, food preparing preparation equipment, furnaces and ovens, machine tools, network, data processing and data storing equipment, etc.

6. Council Directive 85/374/EEC of 25 July 1985 on the approximation of the laws, regulations and administrative provisions of the Member States concerning liability for defective products OJ 1985 L210/29.

7. Directive 2001/95/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 3 December 2001 on general product safety, OJ 2002 L11/4.  In 2013, the Commission proposed a new product safety and market surveillance package to the EU Parliament and the Council.  Consideration of that proposal is currently ongoing.  For an overview of the EU product safety rules, see the Commission's website.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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