Last week, my Skoda’s cooling coil had a problem. The mechanic gave me two options – the original coil that had 2 years of warrantee and a “Chinese” version that had no warranty, but it costed a third of the original. “What’s your recommendation?” I asked. “Saab, aap Chinee hi le lo (take the Chinese)”. His experience was that the coil will last at least for a year. Logic was why spend on the original? He was right. I decided to opt for the Chinese cooling coil. I was going to change from Skoda to a new model of Toyota in another year anyways. Product durability wasn’t critical to me.
I’ve met several people who’ve had their Rolex for 25-40 years and have never had it serviced. My friend has a Rolex Submariner that was launched in 1953. His dad gifted him this watch when he got married. Now this friend wanted to gift Rolex Submariner to his son on his graduation day. But his son preferred a trendy Casio instead that was cheap and certainly not long lasting. “I want to change my watch every summer Dad”. He said. Product durability was threatening his desire to remain in fashion.
While a “passion to change” or a “dynamic consumer behaviour” is the trend of the day, some manufacturing industries have been practicing dubious strategies of “planned obscelence”. These manufacturers exploit planned obsolescence to make consumers buy more product, such as by purposefully making it difficult, or too costly, to make repairs, or by preventing backwards compatibility. According to a recent report by the Öko-Institut e.V. and Bonn University commissioned by the German Environment Agency (UBA), the service life of most electrical appliances is becoming shorter and shorter.
A classic case of planned obsolescence is nylon stockings. The original nylon was also used for parachutes in the military and is still used in climbing ropes enabling climbers to embark on daring climbs. Now it seems quite ridiculous that even after being such a strong polymer, a pair of “remanufactured” nylon stocking only lasts a few weeks or so.
In 1920’s, the infamous “Phoebus cartel” was formed, wherein representatives from top light bulb manufacturers worldwide, such as Germany’s Osram, the United Kingdom’s Associated Electrical Industries, and General Electric (GE) in the United States (via a British subsidiary), colluded to artificially reduce bulbs’ lifetimes to 1,000 hours. You may not know that the original light bulbs made by Thomas Edison in 1879 are still going strong in some museums. Today, bulbs have to be changed at least once a year, sometimes more.
Beril Toktay, a professor at Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business says that sometimes when you design for recyclability, you give up on durability, and when durability is the goal, recyclability is sacrificed. In the case of photovoltaic panels, the Toktay and the team highlighted how thin-film panels are much more cost effective to recycle than other panels because they contain precious metals. Meanwhile, crystalline silicon panels, which aren’t as cost effective to recycle, have much longer life spans because their components degrade much more slowly.
Apparently, producers that make cheaper but not so durable products believe that the additional sales revenue they create offsets the additional costs of research and development, and further offsets the opportunity costs of repurposing an existing product line. A possible goal for such design is to make the cost of repairs comparable to the replacement cost, or to prevent any form of servicing of the product for extending its life. The idea of product repairability is simply throttled in such designs.
A glaring example of such design are the disposable cameras (that have now thankfully disappeared) , where the customer must purchase an entire new product after using them a single time. And there are design features meant to frustrate repairs, such as Apple’s “tamper-resistant” pentalobe screws that cannot easily be removed with common consumer tools.
While planned obsolescence and tampering of repairability, is appealing to producers to grab the market, it does a significant harm to the society in the form of negative externalities. Continuously replacing products, rather than repairing them, creates more waste and pollution, uses more natural resources, and results in more consumer spending. Such a way of living challenges this planets sustainability.
There is a need to identify the right balance in terms of environmental and social costs between continuing to use a product or replacing it by a more performing product. If the existing product consumes more resources during its lifetime than a new one, then it may be worth to change it, provided the environmental and social costs to manufacture a new product do not offset the expected benefits linked to changing product.
But there have been controversies on the life cycle assessment of products that are designed for a short durability as against those products that are designed to last longer. Take the example of washing machines: the energy demand and global warming potential during a lifetime of 5 years is claimed to be about 40% higher compared to a washing machine with a lifetime of 20 years! These figures capture the potential improvement of energy efficiency into account. So, it is very difficult to make a choice of the most sustainable washing machine when you go for shopping online.
A consumer must look at the repairability of the product. The Book “Products that last” published by TU Delft, contains innovative examples of reducing materials in products and orienting business models. The Austrian Standards for assessing the reparability of white and brown goods (Austrian Standards, 2014) and the criteria used by IFIXIT are examples of inspiring directions (IFIXIT, 2015). The European Consumer Organization (BEUC) has launched a new campaign for durable goods, more sustainable and better consumer’s rights (BEUC campaign).
In 2015, as part of a larger movement against planned obsolescence across the European Union, France passed legislation requiring that appliance manufacturers and vendors declare the intended product lifespans, and to inform consumers how long spare parts for a given product will be produced. From 2016, appliance manufacturers in France are required to repair or replace, free of charge, any defective product within two years from its original purchase date.
The Austrian standard establishes a guarantee of 5 years for brown goods and 10 years for white goods. It also considers the guarantee to reflect both the product’s life span and the time for which spare parts should be available. One of the reasons that spare parts are often unavailable is rapid design changes or planned obscelence. Spare parts should be available at least during the normalized lifespan of the product and consumers should be informed about where to find or order them.
Professor heard my suggestions and arguments on the importance of product durability, repairability and sustainability. He lit his cigar and said ”Dr Modak, Indeed we need to raise the awareness on this important topic, but more importantly we must establish collaborative platforms between the product manufacturers and consumers. Today, such dialogues do not happen and perhaps the regulator i.e. the Government should facilitate such discussions on a serious level”
I thought the Professor was right. “Let us discuss more Professor”. I said this pushing the ashtray towards him.
“Oh Dr Modak, but I am sorry – I have to leave now for my lecture.”. Professor stopped me abruptly. “How about meeting over a coffee later” He started organizing his briefcase.
Just then the old clock on the wall played a chime as a reminder.
I noticed that it was a Westminister chime clock in wood – well maintained and preserved for more than 40 years!
Cover page sourced from https://www.renolit.com/en/industries/home-building/exterior/roofing/sustainability
I will highly recommend you to read an excellent report by Núria Cases i Sampere on this important subject. I have used the findings of this report extensively in this post.
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