With the European Green Deal as a powerful toolkit, Europe is working hard towards climate neutrality by 2050. Consumers are contributing in all sorts of ways, reducing, reusing or recycling to decrease their ecological impact. Consumers also address sustainability issues to the ECC-Net when these issues affect their individual consumer rights. But before ECC-Net can communicate and advise on sustainable consumption, it makes sense to examine the network’s own sustainable focus.
In 2021, all 29 European Consumer Centres saw the importance of engaging in a journey of sustainability. Karen Ghysels, director of the Belgian European Consumer Centre and initiator of the project, explains: “It is very important to the ECC-Net to be involved in the green transition and to work towards a sustainable economy. When it comes to consumer issues, ECCs are the face of Europe. However, we ourselves still have a lot to learn about sustainability. We therefore decided we needed to be cautious in our approach. We chose to first look into how sustainable we ourselves as a network are. The simple principle of ‘practice what you preach’. Greenwashing is one of the topics we warn consumers about, so of course the last thing we wanted to do was to engage in it ourselves.”
To map all existing efforts and create an initial roadmap for focus areas based on the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, ECC-Net teamed up with sustainability transformation consultancy company Greenfish. Each ECC appointed one or two gatekeepers to help provide an overview of sustainable initiatives in each ECC. These were later compiled and analysed by Greenfish. The initiatives comprised the three ESG dimensions of corporate responsibility, relevant for ECC-Net:
- environmental (e.g. use of resources, greenhouse gas emissions)
- social (e.g. employee health and safety, diversity)
- governance (e.g. auditing)
The initial mapping showed that the ECC Network has a good basis regarding the three ESG dimensions. ECC-Net scores particularly high in the dimensions of good governance, which benchmarks show can be especially hard to introduce within an organisation. The network received high scores for internal sustainable management, transparent working methods and risk reduction through regular auditing and reporting. Some other numbers that we are proud of:
- 21 ECCs already actively engage in the reduction of paper usage (environmental)
- 17 ECCs already use recyclable or washable materials in office kitchens (environmental)
- 17 ECCs already provide courses in health and safety, workplace ergonomics, GDPR etc. (social)
- 15 ECCs already stimulate the use of public transport and bicycles through refunds (environmental)
- 14 ECCs have a particularly high female representation (social)
- 3 ECCs had already appointed an ‘eco ambassador’ in the office at the time of this study (governance)
Opportunities to be explored were found in ECC-Net’s international and somewhat complex organisational make-up. Collaboration between ECCs is key. National sustainable initiatives and knowledge should be exchanged between ECCs, so that all employees understand and are a part of the process. Simultaneously better communication will also help narrow down focus, to avoid wanting to pursue too many different goals at the same time.
ECC-Net sees another challenge in the way all ECCs are hosted by a different national organisation. These host organisations are very diverse, ranging from ministries to consumer organisations and organisations for legal aid. The sustainable efforts of all ECCs are therefore also linked to the efforts of their host. Establishing common policy is important here. E.g. does an ECC have initiatives in place for paper reduction? Then so should the host, and vice versa. The challenge will be to align all ECCs and get all the centres on the same level.
The three-dimensional model allowed for a nuanced view of some ECC specific dilemmas. Initiator Karen Ghysels (ECC Belgium): “What particularly got my attention during this first exploration, was that sustainability comprises more than just environmental awareness. It covers a wider range of aspects needed in sustainable societies. One example: ECC-Net handles many cases regarding air passenger rights. International colleagues themselves at times also need to travel to meet and work together. At first sight, this seems incompatible with environmental goals. From a perspective of the social dimension, however, these meetings have also contributed to the successful and informal collaboration between the ECC branches.”
Julie Bleeker, project manager for the 2021 ECC sustainability project, gives a positive outlook for the future: “Being a large network organisation, ECC-Net holds both a challenge and a trump card. In the long term, aligning national offices and exchanging best practices, combined with a strong strategic orientation, will be the deciding factor. The network is characterised by a strong internal motivation and will be able to make an operational impact based on those foundations.”
The internal assessment is only a first step in ECCs efforts towards becoming more sustainable. After the mapping of initiatives and initial analysis, employees followed an awareness workshop and ECC-Net’s focus areas for the coming years were presented. Some ideas were so well-received that they were immediately adopted. The idea of an ‘eco ambassador’ for every office, for example, caught on. In 2022, every ECC branch has appointed an ambassador. Together these ambassadors will keep an eye on the sustainability of their office, exchange initiatives, work on a sustainable vision for the network and follow courses to gather the newest insights into sustainable consumerism for their own office, the network and consumers.
Karen Ghysels: “I think the main focus for our future will be to incorporate a sustainable vision into our day-to-day work and to make sure all employees are on board. I think we should be modest in our promise to consumers. We ourselves are also working on becoming a little bit more sustainable every day. We certainly want to help spread the Green Deal messages within the scope of our competence. In any case this project kick-off has shown we are engaged in this topic as a network. We can learn a lot from each other and from the different cultures and initiatives in the countries we live in. It has truly brought an extra dimension to our project.”