Ecodesign: New ways of circumventing legislation and standards uncovered

European legislation on ecodesign  and energy labelling makes an important contribution to achieving  climate protection goals. However, their effect is endangered if  manufacturers fail to comply with legal requirements or deliberately  circumvent prescribed test procedures. Kathrin Graulich from the  Oeko-Institut is coordinator of the European research project ANTICSS.  There she is investigating the tricks used by manufacturers of  electrical appliances to circumvent minimum requirements and measurement  standards in the field of ecodesign and energy labelling. The aim of  the project is to strengthen confidence in the two policy instruments  and their effectiveness.

Ecodesign legislation  sets mandatory minimum energy efficiency requirements for many products  on the European market. The indication of the energy consumption on the  Energy label makes it easier for consumers to choose energy-efficient products.

The Ecodesign Directive covers more than 25 product groups,  including household appliances, lighting, heating and air-conditioning  equipment, information and communication technologies and, increasingly,  industrial equipment. The European Commission estimates that the two policy instruments together contribute to about half of the energy efficiency target for 2020. 

Consumers also benefit from the  regulations: More efficient appliances can significantly reduce the cost  of electricity consumption in households. 

The effect is endangered

However, the predicted effect can only occur if manufacturers and retailers comply with the legal requirements. The European Commission estimates that around 10 percent of the energy-saving potential is lost  because up to a quarter of the products on the market do not fully  comply with the energy label regulations. According to a recent report by the European Court of Auditors,  these losses roughly correspond to the total electricity consumption of  Sweden and Hungary combined. Reasons for non-compliance include 

  • a missing or incorrect energy label, 
  • the non-compliance with information requirements, as well as 
  • incorrect classification of the energy class.

Suspicious or manipulated test results also possible under ecodesign regulation

While the reasons for non-conformity, i.e. „non-compliance”  with requirements, and possible remedial measures have already been  well analysed, the issue of suspect or manipulated test results, i.e. „circumvention”  of measurement standards and minimum requirements in the context of  ecodesign and energy labelling, has only recently started to receive  political attention. Triggered by the diesel scandal, in which vehicles  contained a certain defeat device that guaranteed compliance with  emission limits only on the test bench, the aim is to investigate  whether such manipulations are also possible under other EU legislation.

European research project ANTICSS examines „circumvention” 

Against this background, the European Union is funding the three-year project „ANTICSS – Anti-Circumvention of Standards for Better Market Surveillance“  under the research and innovation programme „Horizon 2020“. Its main  objective is to analyse and assess the „circumvention“ of legislation  and standards in ecodesign and energy labelling in order to minimise the  impact of circumvention in the future. Research is conducted under the  leadership of Oeko-Institut in cooperation with 18 other partner  organisations from research, energy agencies, test laboratories, market  surveillance and standardisation.

“Circumvention“ of legislation and standards is much more difficult to detect 

One of the most important findings of  the research project is that „circumvention“ goes far beyond  „non-compliance“ and is at the same time much more difficult to detect:  Market surveillance authorities can detect non-compliance relatively  easily by inspecting product documentation and/or by laboratory tests.  The information and results are compared with the requirements laid down  in legislation and standards. If they do not comply, the market  surveillance authorities can claim the product as not being in  conformity with the ecodesign and energy labelling requirements.

In contrast, in case of  „circumvention“, the product does not directly appear to be  „non-compliant“ during testing. At first glance, the products appear to  meet all requirements and conditions in the standardized laboratory  test. However, the test results are influenced in such a way that they  are more positive for the manufacturer: by „circumventing“ minimum  requirements or measurement standards or by exploiting (potential)  weaknesses or gaps in standards and legislation.   

Two additional possibilities of „circumvention“ discovered

The ANTICSS project team has extensively investigated the possibilities of „circumventing“ the system. Through literature research and analysis of existing  legislation and measurement standards on ecodesign and energy labelling,  possible gaps and loopholes were identified. In a survey of 278 experts  from manufacturers, market surveillance authorities, test laboratories,  as well as consumer and environmental organisations, 39 suspected  product cases were collected.

  1. These cases show that, on the one hand, circumvention occurs when the product is programmed to automatically „recognize“ the test situation and to optimize product performance and/or resource consumption specifically during the test. This definition of „circumvention“ is already included in some ecodesign and energy label regulations and prohibited.
  2. New: In addition, a better test result can also be achieved by making certain presettings or manual alterations to the product – exclusively for the purpose of performing the test.  Such „manufacturer’s instructions“ are sometimes necessary for the  implementation of the standard procedures and are therefore officially  included in some measurement regulations. However, if the instructions  are misused in such a way that the test result is significantly  optimized while at the same time these values are not achievable in  everyday life, then this also counts as circumvention in the opinion of  the project team. 
  3. New: A third way of circumvention is  by programming the products to achieve very good energy efficiency or  resource consumption values only for the period in which the conformity  test is usually performed or for a certain number of test cycles.  Products are already programmed at the time of delivery to automatically change performance shortly after the product is put into service.  for example to make them more attractive to users, but at the expense  of the officially labelled energy or resource consumption. The aim may  be to make the programme more attractive to users, for example by  shortening the programme duration, but at the expense of the officially  labelled energy or resource consumption.

Alternative test procedures shall help revealing the tricks 

Since products that have been  manipulated in this way appear to meet the legal requirements and limits  when tested with the standardised test methods, alternative test procedures are required to detect these practices. These are currently being  developed for 18 different suspected cases in the ANTICSS project and  are being tested for their effectiveness by the test laboratories in the  project. 

The alternative procedures will be designed as close as possible to the standard procedures in order to ensure comparability with the original measurement results  and to keep the additional effort for test laboratories small. At the  same time, certain test conditions are slightly varied. If this leads to  inexplicably large changes in the measurement results, this may  indicate that the appliance might have been specially optimised for the  standard test.

Strengthening confidence in policy instruments and their effectiveness 

The possible effects – should  circumvention actually take place on a larger scale – would be fatal in  several respects: in addition to the lost savings and climate protection  potential, the trust of society and business in these key EU policy  instruments would be massively damaged.

The research results of ANTICSS  therefore make an important contribution to shedding light on the yet  unclarified possibilities for manufacturers to circumvent the  requirements and standards in the context of the European legislation on  ecodesign and energy labelling. The results achieved with the project,  i.e.  

  • attention to the topic, 
  • raising the awareness of market surveillance authorities and testing organisations 
  • improved possibilities to detect circumvention attempts, as well as 
  • closing of weaknesses and loopholes in the legislation and standards 

shall help to ensure that we do not get another „diesel scandal“, this time in the area of product policy.


(3. February 2020)