by Ulrich Ellinghaus, partner at Baker & McKenzie Frankfurt
The German Green party has presented a study on “planned obsolescence“ of products. Planned obsolescence is the scientific name for the planned ageing and wearing-out of products. The study, which was prepared by ARGE REGIO Stadt- und Regionalentwicklung GmbH, describes the mechanisms of planned obsolescence and suggests ways to reduce and even eliminate it.
The study provides examples of consumer products which are made to last only for a limited period of time. It distinguishes intentional, planned and accepted fast wearing-out of products and provides examples of products that do not last as long as they could because certain components are of low quality or made of less durable materials or insufficient dimensions, and which cannot be repaired or replaced.
It suggests a number of steps to be taken to extend the lifetime of products, including the following: Products should be made in a way so they can be repaired, spare parts should be kept available, the design should be modular and allow for recyclability and re-usability, and maintenance should be possible at regional level. The study goes on to suggest a number of measures, including the following:
-Introduction of labeling requirements indicating the product quality, such as its “expected useful life” and a clear warning that a product cannot be repaired or that no spare parts will be available;
– Introduction of minimum standards for repair, interfaces and components;
– Obligations to provide repair instructions and keep spare parts available;
– Introduction of a mandatory “codex for sustainable product quality in the recycling economy” and of a “product responsibility act”;
– Setting up of a national or European platform to better match the input and output of substances;
– Introduction of the concept of “hidden defect” as part of civil law warranty.
The study also examines to which extent measures to avoid planned obsolescence can be introduced under existing legislation, considering the Ecodesign Directive 2009/125/EC, the Eco-Labelling Directive 2010/30/EU and the WEEE Directive 2012/19/EU. It concludes that the current wording of the Ecodesign Directive already considers the topic. Annex 1, which contains a set of indicators to assess the sustainability of products, addresses the topic of obsolescence by mentioning the “extension of lifetime as expressed through: minimum guaranteed lifetime, minimum time for availability of spare parts, modularity, upgradeability, reparability”. As a consequence, implementing measures imposing requirements to avoid planned obsolescence would already be possible under the umbrella of the existing Ecodesign Directive. The study emphasizes that “the possibility to eliminate nearly all negative effects of planned obsolescence exists already under the current Ecodesign Directive”. It also points out that information on the planned life expectancy of products can be required under EU Labeling Directive 2010/30/EU.
According to the authors of the study, the introduction of legal instruments to address planned obsolescence is only logical, considering the already well-established EU policy on sustainable development, which is laid down in numerous policy documents, such as the EU Sustainable Development Strategy, the Strategy on the sustainable use of natural resources, the Eco Innovation Programme, the 5th and 6th Environment Action Programme, the Sustainable Consumption and Production and Sustainable Industrial Policy Action Plan and the Flagship Initiative “A resource-efficient Europe”, all of which contain policies and strategies which can easily be linked to the reduction and elimination of planned obsolescence.
At first sight, the mandatory introduction of measures to force industry to design long-lasting products that can easily be repaired and re-used, seems like a radical approach which interferes with the freedom of manufacturers of how to make their product and the freedom of consumers to choose which products they prefer to buy. It may, however, be only a small step away from realization, considering that the already existing Ecodesign Directive empowers the European Commission to impose any kind of “ecodesign requirements” as long as they foster the “ecodesign parameters” listed in the Directive. In addition measures in favor of extending product lifetime and usability are promoted by relevant stakeholders – as the study shows – and they are very much in line with European environmental policy. Therefore, companies should not underestimate this, potentially imminent, development. On the contrary, in order to be on top of the competition, companies should check to which extent their portfolio is likely to be affected. They also should provide assistance at an early stage to regulators to keep them from prescribing disproportionate measures out of a lack of industry knowledge.
The study (in German) is available at http://www.gruene-bundestag.de/fileadmin/media/gruenebundestag_de/themen_az/umwelt/PDF/Studie-Obsoleszenz-BT-GRUENE-vorabversion.pdf
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