Antonio Stradivari was an Italian genius who created over 1,000 musical instruments of the finest quality. Several hundred of his famous violins survived the past 350 years through turbulent times, and their sound still rejoices us today. Their owners would probably rather sell their own grandmothers than sell their Stradivariuses.
What a contrast with the products we use daily nowadays! I cannot count the number of printers I had to replace in the last ten years because they failed too quickly. Several sandwich-toasters, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, electric toothbrushes, hand mixers… without wanting it, I’ve been piling up a lot of toxic electronic waste in my life. Meanwhile, my Mum still uses the dryer she got for her engagement.
All this raises the legitimate question: can’t we do any better?
For decades, companies have been trying to shoot down the issue of early product failure – aka planned obsolescence. They line up arguments like “if we would produce rubbish as you claim, we would be out of business” or “no one has ever proven that planned obsolescence exists, and it doesn’t exist by the way…”
Consumers need to know about the expected lifetimes of products and related costs, repair options and availability of spare parts when they are shopping.
Fortunately, more and more politicians recognise that we cannot continue producing so much waste. The European Commission acknowledges it is essential to make products more durable, reparable, upgradeable, re-usable and recyclable. Clearer information to consumers about product lifetimes is also something the EU is looking at. And the Commission is not alone as several EU Member States such as France and Sweden, or the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee all back such measures.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way
These are important announcements made but concrete actions have to follow. It all comes down to the difference between Antonio Stradivari and the manufacturer of my electric toothbrush. While the one was passionate about perfection, performance and longevity, the other just tries to survive the two-year legal guarantee period. And to do so you just have to be as good as necessary. This is often disappointing for consumers.
Some of our members have assessed consumer anger at products like printers which die before a T-shirt does. I think of our Belgian member, Test-Achats, who has set up a platform where consumers can report when their coffee machine or smartphone break too quickly. In just 5 months, over 5,400 consumers have shared their unfortunate experience.
This kind of concrete action by our members, along with their product tests, have helped us identify areas where concrete improvements are necessary and possible.
The way forward
For instance, Ecodesign rules aim to make some products greener right from the design phase. We could make the most of this tool if EU institutions included durability requirements. It would ensure that ‘ecodesigned’ products, like washing machines and hair dryers, last longer and can be repaired more easily.
Information is key to help consumers make better informed choices. They need to know about the expected lifetimes of products and related costs, repair options and availability of spare parts when they are shopping.
When products fail too quickly, consumers need stronger guarantee rights. If the product fails more than six months after the purchase, the trader could easily deny the consumers’ guarantee. That is because the burden of proof for the product’s lack of conformity lays with the seller for only the first six months, after which it shifts to the consumer. Consequently, the actual guarantee often lasts only 6 months instead of the minimum 2 years. Not to mention that this 2-year period is inappropriate for products that consumers legitimately expect to last longer, such as washing machines, audio-visual devices, or cars.
To reverse the trend, the burden of proof should stay on the trader’s shoulders for longer. Also, the more durable products are, the longer the legal guarantees should last.
I’ve been piling up a lot of toxic electronic waste in my life. Meanwhile, my Mum still uses the dryer she got for her engagement.
Finally, software updates should be available for all devices that need the latest functionalities to work properly. Like my colleague from Consumentenbond said in a recent blog post, “without the updates the device will become prematurely outdated”.
As long as the engineer of my toothbrush does not share the same excitement and genius as Stradivari, stricter laws and enforcement must do the job.