Pile of old mattresses

Could Product Passports Revolutionise the Way We Shop and Recycle?

Professor Lyndon Simkin, Centre for Business in Society

A recent BBC News feature[i] explains that, “Every year across Europe, there are about 30 million mattresses that are at the end of their life… The vast majority of them end up in landfill or being burned”.  It can take 80 to 120 years for a single mattress to decompose and they are very bulky users of space in landfill.[ii]  The challenge is that recyclers invariable do not know what is in each mattress and what might be recyclable. 

The new Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive from the EU aims to alter this.  Starting with industrial and vehicle batteries by 2027, textiles by 2030 and then most product categories.

Changing Practices Through the EU’s Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive

As the European Commission explains, “The aim of this Directive is to foster sustainable and responsible corporate behaviour and to anchor human rights and environmental considerations in companies’ operations and corporate governance.  The new rules will ensure that businesses address adverse impacts of their actions, including in their value chains inside and outside Europe”. [iii]

As international law firm Baker McKenzie explains[iv], “under the EU Directive in-scope companies are required to adopt and implement effective due diligence policies for identifying, preventing, mitigating, and bringing to an end potential and actual so-called ‘adverse impacts’ on human rights and environmental matters in these companies’ own operations, the operations of their subsidiaries, and certain operations of their business partners”.  Including, “the distribution, transport, storage, and disposal of a product, including the dismantling, recycling, composting, or landfilling, where the business partners carry out those activities directly or indirectly for the company or on behalf of the company, excluding the disposal of a product by consumers, and distribution, transport, storage, and disposal of products subject to export control”.

As someone whose interests bridge consumer behaviour, sustainability, the circular economy and business strategy, this development has caused me to dwell on its implications and challenges.

Changing Behaviours and Practices are Difficult to Bring About

Consumer change is difficult to instil.  We are mostly rather routinised in our shopping and consumption behaviours, how we spend our time, our values and our attitudes.  Change does not come naturally to many of us.  Many companies also have engrained and rigid processes and behaviours, budgetary constraints and financial drivers that do not naturally embrace change.  But change we must, if the damage being done to the natural environment and to the resources on which we depend is to be mitigated and reversed. 

Change is possible.  Look at how many of us today depend on our mobiles and apps to not just make phone calls, but to shop, pay for transactions, find out information, keep track of our loved ones, check on home security, view sport or TV programmes, game and share our thoughts.  Households once depended on landlines and a variety of products or services to achieve the above, but not today.  Now many householders never even subscribe to a landline phone.  Their behaviours changed.

One of the biggest changes to consumer behaviour in recent years has been amongst the growing number of EV drivers.  No last-minute dashes for petrol are possible.  Charging must be planned and organised.  Routes must be chosen to accommodate both driving range and access to charging points.  For some, all of this is still a step too far and an horrendous set of demands on their time, thinking, budget and lifestyle.  However, there are now a million[v] drivers in the UK that have made this transition, embracing change and in doing so adopting a greener solution for their transport needs.  So change is possible.

There is Hope

Households now routinely recycle.  The Monday morning lines along kerbsides of different coloured wheelie bins and containers full of plastics, paper, cans and food waste attest to this change in the behaviours of most households.  In some cases, change driven by the insistence of their local authorities to collect waste in this fashion, but in many households motivated by a desire to ‘put things right’ and to help the planet.

So while the latest drive to recycle and re-use faces its challenges, undoubtedly there will be those keen to embrace the underlying principles of the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive, for mattresses and so much more.  But only if they know and understand, are persuaded to care, and if the processes involved in enabling recycling/re-use are simple and easy.  And only if the Directive is enforced.  So what plans are there in the UK to follow this EU initiative?  What will encourage manufacturers to issue digital product passports?  What communication plan will inspire consumers and households to make use of such information?  How will recyclers respond?

Non-EU companies with sales of over 150 million euros will have to comply[vi].  Most big brands in the UK either trade in the EU or are located in the EU, so despite Brexit we can expect this Directive to have an impact on companies and consumers in the UK.  The EU Parliament and Commission reached political agreement on the Directive in December.  There is still some push-back in some quarters and lobbying regarding the finer details, so exact timeframes for roll-out are unclear.[vii]  Nevertheless, this Directive will become part of our lives.

And As for Those Mattresses…

For the 30 million mattresses coming to the end of their lives each year in the EU, RFID tags for recyclers will be inside mattresses so that they can find out about the materials and processes used in manufacturing.  Externally, a QR code will enable consumers to scan and find out about how their mattress was made, materials and recycling.  These codes could also feature product care and cleaning information to help extend their lifespan.  The EU directive will hold companies accountable for sharing data that are accurate and useful for those involved in selling, distributing, consuming and recycling products.

And it’s not ‘just’ mattresses.  Already leading architects are discussing product data with suppliers for major construction products, ethical clothing companies are including product passports, and supply chain companies are starting to embrace the technology necessary for this to work.[viii]  However, we are a long way from full scale adoption, changing manufacturers’, retailers’ and consumers’ behaviours, and from creating the levels of awareness and understanding of digital product passports necessary for this initiative to make the difference required.  Nevertheless, initiatives such as the Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive are a step in the right direction.  If businesses and society embrace the Directive and the benefits potentially ensuing.

Through understanding the impact of organisations’ activities, behaviours and policies, the Centre for Business in Society at Coventry University seeks to promote responsibility, to change behaviours, and to achieve better outcomes for economies, societies and the individual.

[i] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-68283317

[ii] https://canadianmattressrecycling.com/mattress-recycling-why-you-should-do-it/#:~:text=Mattresses%20take%20decades%20to%20decompose,the%20mattress%20is%20fully%20decomposed.

[iii] https://commission.europa.eu/business-economy-euro/doing-business-eu/corporate-sustainability-due-diligence_en

[iv] https://insightplus.bakermckenzie.com/bm/energy-mining-infrastructure_1/global-the-new-eu-corporate-sustainability-due-diligence-directive-has-been-provisionally-agreed-what-does-this-mean-for-companies#Section%202

[v] https://www.rac.co.uk/drive/electric-cars/choosing/road-to-electric/#:~:text=We%20estimate%20there%20are%20around,of%20January%20or%20February%202024.

[vi] https://kpmg.com/xx/en/home/insights/2023/02/the-eu-corporate-sustainability-due-diligence-directive.html

[vii] https://www.wwf.eu/?12854441/Unexpected-last-round-for-corporate-due-diligence-law-tests-EUs-credibility

[viii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-68283317