Christmas is just around the corner, and although this year it is looking to be an unusual one by any standards, many of you will be in the throes of shopping for presents for loved ones and friends. With an environmental conscience, this can be a challenging task (see why we recommend that you buy local). Of course, there are many options that boast eco materials, sustainable design and a carbon-neutral manufacturing process however the fact remains that any manufactured product comes at a cost to our environment.
In no area of consumption is this more true than in electronics. Globally we produce over 50 million tons of e-waste per year, a scale that our planet simply cannot sustain. With the tough social circumstances of the current pandemic, there is predicted to be an unparalleled hike in demand for consumer electronics this Christmas, as people seek to connect with others at a distance. This increase in sales will of course lead to an avalanche of outdated and often discarded electronic goods in 2021. Although many communities, including our own, are expanding their e-waste recycling, it is a very costly process and only a small percentage of the refuse is ever recycled effectively.
While sustainability and recyclability are both important elements of new products, it is essential to consider the durability and reparability of a good if we are to curb the environmentally-catastrophic consequences of mass consumerism. Products with these characteristics are key in the move towards a more sustainable economic model that will enable us to live comfortably within the natural boundaries of our environment. Yet with world-leading consumer product companies like Apple knowingly utilizing strategies to reduce the lifespan of core products in order to increase future sales, it seems we face an uphill battle. This is the battle against an intentional manufacturing strategy known as planned obsolescence.
WHAT IS PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE?
Planned obsolescence can be understood as the way that companies deliberately design and manufacture a product to ensure it degrades and ceases to function earlier than it would otherwise do so. This is done to increase the product’s replacement rate, the future demand for subsequent units and, in turn, the company’s profits. From an environmental perspective, a higher replacement rate leads to an increased demand for the extraction of raw materials, greater manufacturing, transport and refuse emissions and further expansion of land use accompanied by environmental contamination.
Companies like Apple did not invent planned obsolescence, in fact, the origins of the practice can be traced back to the commercialization of the lightbulb. In 1925 an international agreement between incandescent lightbulb producers was signed in nearby Geneva, resulting in the creation of an international supply “cartel” in the lightbulb market. Despite the technology of ultra-long-lasting lightbulbs existing at that time, bulb manufacturers knew that in order to maximise sales, they needed to degrade the lifespan of their lightbulbs. They even created lightbulb testing rooms to ensure members of the cartel were all producing equally (dys)functional bulbs so as to not out-compete one another. Standing testament to the fact that even incandescent lightbulb filaments can last considerably longer than the industry suggests, one bulb in particular, known as the Centennial lightbulb, can be found in an old fire station in California where it continues to glow after 119 years!
With our brief history lesson over, let’s fast forward to today where there is still no widespread international legislation to combat this practice. On top of this, planned obsolescence has crept into more discrete and manipulative forms, including both aesthetic obsolescence, playing out in our consumer psyche, and obsolescence via software alterations. Apple are experts at both of these strategies, not only do they withhold already acquired technological advancements in order to sell future models down the line, but they have also long been known to release software updates for products like the iPhone which intentionally reduce the speed of older devices to the point of dysfunction.
IS ANYONE DOING ANYTHING ABOUT IT?
The fight against planned obsolescence faces many challenges, not the least being the fact that proving in court that a company intentionally practices planned obsolescence is extremely difficult. Fortunately, this has not stopped people from trying. Here in France the government boldly laid out preliminary legislation in 2015 to criminalize manufacturers employing this technique. Two years later, the law was put to test with cases being brought against both Epson and Apple. As a consequence, in January 2020 Apple was fined €25 million and, although this is equivalent to a meagre 3 hours of profits for the tech giant, such a landmark case has set a huge precedent. In fact the momentum created by this outcome has led to a resolution within the EU, authored by French MEP Pascal Durand. This resolution has strongly passed within the European Parliament, demonstrating that there is an international appetite for legislation fighting the perils of over-consumption. While this is great news in an age of seeming corporate dominance and climatic emergency, there is still more that can be done to help fight planned obsolescence.
HOP CONSUMER INDEX AND THE RIGHT-TO-REPAIR
Given that the market involves both producers and consumers, there is plenty that can be done on the consumer side. Part of this can simply be achieved through greater information. Currently, it’s not that easy to assess information on the durability and reparability of a product as there is no standardized rating system. This is all about to change in the near future and France is once again leading the charge with the Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (HOP) consumer index. The index will necessitate that certain products show their score out of 10 calculated on several key criteria, including:
- ease of disassembly
- price and availability of spare parts
- access to repair information
- contents and purpose of software updates
Not only will this system arm consumers with the power to choose better products that are built to last, but it will also stimulate healthy competition between producers who must now consider durability and reparability in their business models.
Set to appear sometime in 2021 this initial index will not be perfect and will only cover certain household appliances and electronics to start with. Nonetheless, it is a promising beginning and will likely lead to more informative and thorough systems in the future. Such information will undoubtedly have a huge impact upon the way we make choices as consumers.
The push for this index has largely been driven by the campaign for the “right-to-repair”, which continues to gain traction across the globe. Advocates of this movement feel strongly about our inherent right as consumers to be able to repair a product whenever necessary. This requires having well-designed products which support ease of disassembly, and fair and affordable access to repair resources, including spare parts, informative manuals and community repair assistance.
With the rise of “repair cafés”, other community repair spaces and a large political movement, it is clear that people feel passionately about this issue. This has even caught the attention of some companies, with large outdoor brands like Patagonia emphasizing and facilitating repair of their products.
For those of us lucky enough to enjoy a life in the mountains, these issues take on even greater significance. When you depend upon gear to get you out into the mountains and back home safely at the end of the day, it is crucial that it functions well, is durable and can be repaired when the time comes. When things break it should not be necessary to drive down the valley or post them further afield to get them diagnosed or repaired. Our small yet resourceful mountain communities are the perfect places to promote thoughtful consumption of quality products and exchange the skills and know-how required to maintain and fix them when they inevitably get tired.
These key changes to the way we think about and exercise our expectations and practices as consumers are not only of paramount importance to the future of the environment, but they should also chime with some of the characteristics instilled in us by the very mountains we live in: resilience, resourcefulness and respect.
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Words: Seb Zuniga