Reality check: obsolescence

More washing machines, laundry dryers and refrigerators faulty within 5 years – consumers replace functioning flatscreens sooner

Today’s consumers are using new products for shorter timescales than in the past, according to the initial findings of a study by the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA). It finds evidence of decreased “first-use duration”, especially for TVs and, to some extent, for white goods such as washing machines, dryers and fridges. For electronic notebooks, however, the average duration of first use has remained virtually unchanged.

UBA President Maria Krautzberger explains: “When we looked at the use of electrical and electronic devices, we found a highly differentiated picture. The shortening of appliance first-use duration has varied reasons. In the second half of our study, we are now clarifying whether built-in obsolescence can be held responsible.”

Strategies to tackle obsolescence need to be equally diverse, involving measures that target both manufacturers and consumers. Rainer Griesshammer, a member of the Oeko-Institut’s Executive Board, notes: “Today, more electrical and electronic devices are being replaced even if they are still functioning. Technological advances are often the trigger: we see this happening a lot with televisions. On the other hand, we are also seeing an increase in the share of white goods being replaced within five years because of a technical defect.”

How long do today’s consumers use their electrical and electronic goods? How long does it take for the average product to develop a fault? And what motivates a consumer to buy a replacement? These are just some of the questions being explored by the German Federal Environment Agency in a joint study with the Oeko-Institut and the University of Bonn.

Do manufacturers deliberately shorten the lifespan of their products? This has been a hotly debated issue for some years. Although the concept has a name – “built-in obsolescence” – there is a lack of evidence of its existence. To close the gap, the German Federal Environment Agency commissioned a study to obtain reliable data on the lifespans and duration of use of selected electrical and electronic appliances. The researchers collected and analysed statistics on various types of household goods, large and small, as well as consumer electronics and IT products, for the period 2004-2012.

Half-way through the study, no evidence of built-in product weaknesses can be found yet. A systematic analysis of the causes of product faults and failure will be conducted in the second part of the study.

Flat screen TVs

The initial findings show that technical innovations are prompting today’s consumers to upgrade their flat screen TVs more quickly than before, even if the devices are functioning. More than 60 per cent of functioning flat screens were replaced for an upgrade in 2012, whereas only 25 per cent of purchases were made to replace a faulty product. In 2012, the average TV being replaced was only 5.6 years old. By contrast, the average duration of first use for cathode ray tube TVs from 2005 to 2012 was between 10 and 12 years.

White goods

The study also found that during the period reviewed, average first-use duration of white goods such as washing machines, dryers and fridges was 13 years – a decrease of around one year. One third of purchases were made to replace an appliance that was still functioning, i.e. the decision to buy a new product was motivated solely by the consumer’s desire for an upgrade. Just over every second replacement purchase was made because the existing product was faulty (2005: 57.6 per cent; 2012/2013: 55.6 per cent). The percentage of appliances being replaced within just five years due to technical defects has increased noticeably: from 3.5 per cent in 2004 to 8.3 per cent in 2012.


With notebooks, first-use duration has remained fairly constant, averaging five or six years, but the reasons for replacing a notebook have changed. In 2004, 70 per cent of functioning notebooks were replaced as a result of technological innovations and consumers’ desire for an upgrade, but in 2012/2013, this had fallen to around 25 per cent. In a further 25 per cent of cases in 2012, the new product was purchased because the old one had developed a technical defect.

Once the study ends in late 2015, the Federal Environment Agency plans to publish recommendations for manufacturers, consumers and legislators. “With the Ecodesign Directive and eco-labelling schemes such as Blue Angel, we already have instruments that can be used to guarantee minimum product longevity and improve the information available for consumers. Our study will now be investigating how these requirements can be broadened and assessed,” says Maria Krautzberger.


The interim report is available for download (in german language)

The Blue Angel scheme certifies long-lasting, easy-to-repair products:

Contact person at Oeko Institut:

Siddharth Prakash
Senior Researcher in the Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division
Oeko Institut, Freiburg head office
Phone: +49 761-45 295 244