For the first time, an EU institution is looking into the positive aspects of a total ban on planned obsolescence: more jobs, better consumer protection and a boost to sustainable development. The EESC has today issued an opinion on product lifetimes and consumer information to combat the business strategy of obsolescence.
Bulbs that burn out after a certain time, batteries that run out within a set period or clothes that quickly fall out of fashion are just a few examples of planned obsolescence - products that are designed to stop working within two or three years of their purchase, shortly after the expiry of their guarantee. Replacing these products means using up additional energy and resources, which generates more waste and harmful pollution.
Jobs at stake
Nowadays, obsolescence brings little if any advantage in terms of jobs. “Most of these products are manufactured outside Europe, by underpaid workers,” points out Mr Haber, the opinion's co-rapporteur and a member of the EESC's Consultative Commission on Industrial Change. “If we threw away less, we would have to repair more, creating thousands of jobs closer to home.”
Obsolescence is not always down to wear and tear. By its very nature, the fashion industry, for example, is built around consumer demand for new and different styles not the durability of individual garments. But even here, turnover is becoming faster and new models are often designed to make their predecessors look ugly or out-of-date.
In terms of concrete action, the EESC plans to organise a major European Round Table in 2014 involving all the relevant actors and covering all sectors including industry, distribution, finance, consumer associations and trade unions. The event will also include an open forum to allow EU citizens to express their own views.
Learn to mend
Mr Haber has encountered numerous products that are designed to stop working within two or three years of their purchase – shortly after the expiry of their guarantee. Replacing them means using up additional energy and resources and this generates more waste and harmful pollution. This has already incited consumers in several countries to take action.
“The EESC would like to see a total ban on products with built-in defects designed to end the product’s life,” explains Mr Libaert, the opinion's rapporteur and a member of the EESC. He wants companies to make goods easier to repair through the supply of replacement parts, for example. And consumers should also be given better information about a product's estimated life expectancy to allow them to make more informed purchasing decisions.
Ideally, the Committee proposes a labelling system that would guarantee a minimum product lifetime – at present this is not a legal requirement. “Companies need to do a lot of research to guarantee the lifetime of a product and at present they do not do enough,” Mr Haber observes. Furthermore, manufacturers should also cover the cost of recycling if their goods have an expected lifetime of less than five years.
Reasons for action
From an environmental perspective, Europe’s consumption of natural resources has increased by some 50 % over the last 30 years: we consume 43 kg of resources per person per day, compared with just 10 kg per person in Africa. In social terms, the rapid disposability of consumer goods has encouraged purchasing on credit, leading to unprecedented levels of personal debt.
Damage to public health is not only caused by local waste disposal and incineration but also by the practice of exporting waste, sometimes illegally, to developing countries that have less stringent regulations. Culturally, perceptions of in-built obsolescence are eroding consumer trust in industry. Lastly, Europe’s economy is being undermined by imports of products with a short lifetime. “By tackling this issue, the EU would be offering its companies a way of standing out from its competitors by effectively putting sustainability into practice.”
“Our purpose is to help improve confidence in our European businesses,” concludes Mr Libaert. But at the same time, the EESC wants to drive the EU towards an economic transition “from a wasteful society to one that is sustainable, where growth is geared towards consumer needs – with a people-oriented approach – and is not an end in itself.”