Issue: June 2016, Obsolescence – Causes, effects, strategies

In Focus

A task for the whole of society

Anti-obsolescence strategies

The useful life of electrical and electronic devices is shortening, according to the Oeko-Institut's latest obsolescence study, which also draws attention to the negative impacts on people and the environment. But whose task is it to take action? Is it down to policy-makers to set minimum product standards? Should manufacturers step up and offer high-quality durable products? Or should consumers refuse to buy cheap appliances that develop faults very quickly? The answer, as the study shows, is: all of the above. On behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency, the Oeko-Institut and the University of Bonn have developed strategies for extending products' useful life and duration of use.

For Siddharth Prakash, who led the obsolescence study, strategies to extend product lifespan and duration of use should adopt a multi-level approach. "Of course, policy-makers must put the right conditions in place and create incentives for longer product use," he says. In his view, minimum quality and durability standards are essential, not only for the appliances themselves but also for their critical components and parts. "In essence, we have to separate off the lower end of the market, thus stopping the poor-quality goods from being put on sale in the first place," he says. "Quality and durability standards would ensure that consumers could rely on a minimum lifespan for products and components, including a period in which products never, or only very rarely, need to be repaired." In practice, this means developing standards and norms for measuring and testing product and component durability and longevity. "Of course, there are already various standards and norms in place to verify components' safety and fitness for purpose, but there are no tests for product longevity."


Developing these standards and norms is a highly complex and time-consuming task, however. "So to begin with, it would be sensible to develop them for the components and parts which are most prone to wear and tear," says Siddharth Prakash. But it is also important to ensure that product design matches the real-world parameters of use. Otherwise, the product can easily become overloaded, causing defects to occur prematurely. "What's more, we should keep in mind that it is not always possible to measure and test longevity reliably within a meaningful timeframe for each product group," says Siddharth Prakash. "For example, if you wanted to simulate seven-year usage for a TV, you would have to keep it running in the lab for around eighteen months, according to Stiftung Warentest. But by the time the test ended, products with short innovation cycles would no longer be on the market." Existing safety standards for components and parts therefore offer possible starting points. "First, it is essential to test how these standards can be expanded to include longevity and durability testing," says Siddharth Prakash. "The minimum standards of quality and durability for critical components can then be implemented via the EU's Ecodesign Directive."

The authors also recommend introducing more stringent obligations for manufacturers to provide product information. "Consumers should be aware, for example, of which shutdown functions have been built in as safety features and which parts are prone to wear and tear, under which conditions they are likely to develop a fault, and how often the device should be serviced," says Siddharth Prakash. Manufacturers should also clearly state the limits to use: hand-held electric mixers, for example, should only be kept running for short periods of time.

The obsolescence study also looked at software-related decreases in the lifespan of appliances such as notebooks and printers. "It is unacceptable that a device in perfect working order goes to waste or has to be replaced simply because it cannot operate using the latest software," says the Oeko-Institut's expert. "Binding minimum software standards are required, such as sufficiently long availability of basic software drivers and mandatory hardware and software updates." Promoting free software and hardware initiatives such as open source operating systems may be another option. The Oeko-Institut's experts are now looking at sustainable software in a current study for the Federal Environment Agency.


Another of the experts' key recommendations concerns better reparability of electrical and electronic devices - although they should of course work perfectly for a specified minimum period. The obsolescence study emphasises that independent repair centres which are not tied to specific manufacturers should have access to detailed repair manuals and to replacement parts, tools and diagnostics in order to ensure fair competition in the repair sector. "Clear minimum standards on the provision of spare parts and tools and on the replacement or reparability of parts subject to wear and tear, such as batteries, are essential," says Siddharth Prakash.

In addition, new service arrangements offered by producers may be useful. "Here, there are many possible approaches, such as leasing schemes, after-care or even buy-back agreements where the appliance is collected by the dealer or manufacturer for processing prior to reuse," says Siddharth Prakash. "The viability of these approaches should be explored in more detail and discussed with producers and sales outlets." An enabling environment is needed so that appliances remain in use for as long as possible. "One option is to promote reuse and the used appliance market by introducing a quality label to increase the appeal of second-hand electrical and electronic devices."


Besides policy-makers and manufacturers, consumers also have a role to play, note the experts. "The obsolescence study shows that many consumers buy new devices for lifestyle reasons," says Siddharth Prakash. "But they should be asking themselves: do I really need a new smartphone every two years, or indeed every year, which is what some mobile phone companies are offering?" Here, a new consumer mindset is needed to encourage more sustainable behaviour and a willingness to use electrical and electronic devices for as long as possible - for social and environmental reasons.

But strategies to combat obsolescence take time and cannot be introduced overnight. "This is a task for the whole of society and solutions are only possible if policy-makers, manufacturers and consumers work together," says Siddharth. And pausing briefly, he adds: "We need a constructive dialogue, not conspiracy theories." Christiane Weihe

Further information about the article
Contact at the Oeko-Institut

Siddharth Prakash's research focuses on sustainable consumption and production. He led the comprehensive study on obsolescence conducted by the Oeko-Institut and the University of Bonn from 2013 to 2016 on behalf of the German Federal Environment Agency.

Siddharth Prakash
Senior Researcher
Sustainable Products & Material Flows
Öko-Institut e.V., Head office Freiburg
Tel.: +49 761 45295-244 

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