Vacuum cleaners: EU law to solve a market failure so as to use less energy. What’s wrong with that?

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 14.25.53So the British tabloids, and plenty of folks on Twitter, have been having a rant about vacuum cleaners, and the EU EcoDesign rules that came into force this week banning the sale of vacuum cleaners rated at more than 1600W. A further round of changes will come into force in 2017, reducing this still further to 900W. I wrote about this issue back in November, and you can find some of the UK press reaction here and here (blow to our freedoms FTW!). Dutch supposedly Social Democrat European Commission nominee Timmermans has also weighed into this debate, saying the EU should be less paternalistic about such things, ignoring of course that Netherlands approved the original law (as Dick points out).

I think the basic point here is clear enough – it should generally be a good thing that vacuum cleaners, and indeed all electric goods, should use less electricity and, in the case of vacuum cleaners, this should not result in a loss of suction power. As UK inventor James Dyson has pointed out, the design of the cleaner is more important than the motor power anyway.

The basic problem is the legal force to all of this. Should anyone – the dastardly EU, or indeed anyone else for that matter – actually ban motors above a certain power?

It is not as if, for example, this is the same as the EU’s ban on NiCd batteries – those, if thrown in the regular waste stream, pose a direct danger to human health, and hence the ban makes sense. When it comes to vacuum cleaners the basic issue is that there is no such direct dangerous impact – using more electricity means more power generation, and hence more power stations required, possibly contributing to more climate change, that may or may not impact the person who bought the vacuum cleaner.

This then leads us to a different question – would there be a different way to achieve the same ends as the high power motor ban? The market signal from the cost of electricity to vacuum with a more powerful machine is clearly not strong enough to motivate a change in consumer behaviour (and this is despite debates about energy prices overall). How many people, when purchasing a new vacuum cleaner, think of the electricity cost to them of using it over the course of that machine’s life time?

So if market signals and information from the electricity price do not work, how about labels? This has worked for fridges and washing machines. Yet for vacuum cleaners this is rather complicated – if a machine works better (i.e. it requires less passes of the head) but its motor is stronger you may still use less electricity than with a less efficient but less powerful motor. So a kind of green label based on wattage would not be a fair reflection of ‘greenness’, and hence would have to encompass more factors in cleaning patterns, sizes of homes, types of floors etc.

The basic issue here then is one of markets, and market failure. Either you conclude that living with the market producing high power but inefficient vacuum cleaners is OK, and the price to be paid to do something about it – law (because the market is not solving this issue any other way, either through electricity prices or labelling is not working) – is too high. Or you see law as a way of changing firms’ and customers’ behaviour for the better (more or less the conclusion of Stiftung Warentest, and John Vidal in The Guardian), and hence the ban makes sense.

That this then ought to be done at EU level is sensible – different vacuum cleaner standards in different EU countries in the Single Market would make no sense, and indeed importers from outside the EU would favour one common standard too. Which then leads us back to Timmermans. This is not the EU being paternalistic. It is the EU dealing with a market failure. Are you, Frans, nominally a social democrat, so blinded by free market ideology that you are basically saying you want the economy to be more laissez-faire?

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