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Towards more sustainable consumption: industrial product lifetimes and restoring trust through consumer information

Public Hearing - EESC, Brussels, Belgium

Towards more sustainable consumption: industrial product lifetimes and restoring trust through consumer information

HEARING, 7 May 2013, 14.30-18.00, EESC, JDE Room 51, 99 rue Belliard, 1040 Brussels


On 7 May 2013, The European Economic and Social Committee is organizing a hearing on built-in obsolescence of consumer products. This hearing is in the framework of currently ongoing works to draw up an own initiative opinion which aims to draft a code of conduct establishing a clear, minimum service-life for industrial products destined for consumer use.

Many consumer products could have a longer service-life. However, particularly in the IT and household appliance sectors, some components seem to be  designed to become obsolete so that the product becomes unusable after a certain period of time or rely on the use of specific consumable items. This has a number of damaging consequences: the cost to consumers of early replacement of the product or dependence to expensive consumable items, the overuse of natural resources and raw materials, in contradiction of EU strategies, and the growing volume of waste.

Consumers are often not informed about the average lifespan of the products they buy, guarantees are not always clear and replacement parts are not always available or are excessively expensive. Rules should be in place and consumers should be  clearly informed.

Harmonising the service-life of the various components in manufactured objects ensures the best possible balance between the functionality of a product and the means used to produce it. It would seem obvious that the corollary to this should be to inform consumers about the average lifespan of the products they buy and the cost of consumable items needed to use it. However, planned obsolescence appears to focus primarily on designing products with a limited lifespan in order to accelerate replacement, and thereby production, cycles.

Built-in obsolescence and dependence is not in itself in question, since it enables economic growth and it would be pointless to produce goods with a longer lifetime when fashion dictates ever more frequent replacement. A number of recent television reports have drawn wider attention to specific products (the examples given including the DuPont company's introduction of less durable nylon tights which had to be replaced more often and the development of light bulbs with shorter filaments to reduce their lifespan). Similarly printers' manufacturers are selling their production without profit expecting to raise money from the sale of expensive and specific consumable items

The aim of this opinion, which is in tune with the general concept of "sustainability" governing our work, will be to curb the most flagrant examples and improve guarantees given to consumers. It should be pointed out that the matter rarely concerns European companies: it is their Asiatic or American counterparts that provide the most flagrant examples.

Rapporteur : Thierry Libaert
Co-Rapporteur Jean Pierre Haber