Where are we in the fight against planned obsolescence?

Planned, premature, organized, planned obsolescence, etc. It has been several years since these somewhat abrupt words appeared to designate or even denounce the early end of life of a whole series of everyday objects. A symptom of our over-consumption society, it should be firmly fought. But where are we in Belgium and in Europe on this issue? Why are things moving so slowly?

The phenomenon of planned obsolescence is not new, but concrete measures seem to be lacking to combat it. Where are we ?

What is planned obsolescence?

There is no consensus on the definition of planned obsolescence. Associations Stop Planned Obsolescence[1] Or Repair Together[2] agree on the following definition: planned obsolescence “brings together all the techniques aimed at deliberately reducing the lifespan or use of a product in order to increase its replacement rate”. In the design office file DRC Environment[3] (2017), commissioned by the Belgian Economy FPS, planned obsolescence is defined as “a stratagem by which a good sees its normative lifespan knowingly reduced from its design, thus limiting its duration of use, to increase its rate of replacement ".

The difference between these two definitions lies in whether obsolescence is intentional or not. The second places more emphasis on the responsibility of the producer (“knowingly”) while “this is only one facet of the problem” according to Anaïs Michel, university expert on the issue. The consumer can also be the cause of obsolescence due to insufficient knowledge or poor maintenance of their objects. Or by buying a new smartphone for example while yours still works. Ms Michel insists on the need to have a neutral and objective definition which does not stigmatize a particular actor because this risks being a hindrance in the discussions. This is why it is better to talk about premature obsolescence rather than planned obsolescence. Ultimately, the existence of the intention does not matter since the consequences on consumers and the environment remain the same, she continues.[4]. “What is to be deplored is that the product does not last as long as it should[5] ".

Furthermore, the causes of obsolescence are not solely linked to the producer. They may occur during sale, distribution or consumption. This is why it should be clarified that there are different types of obsolescence[6] :

Technical (sometimes called structural, material or functional): it is the act of limiting the lifespan of a product by weakening one of its components: by undersizing an electronic element, by not reinforcing a frequently subjected part constraints and malformations, by placing an electronic element blocking the operation of the device, etc.

Aesthetic (or psychological): linked to marketing, pushes the consumer to want to replace their objects with new ones to be fashionable.

Software : linked mainly to computers and smartphones, covers several techniques: the limitation of the duration of technical support in relation to the actual duration of use, or even the incompatibility of format between old and new version of the software (updating updating is too cumbersome and slows down the device, which means you have to buy a new one).

We sometimes add obsolescence technological when replacement parts for a product are no longer available. Or even obsolescence economic when the price of these parts discourages the consumer from having it repaired. This obstacle to repair is also manifested by the installation of eccentric “safety screws” at the time of design or by gluing certain parts of the device.

Some figures: 77% of Europeans would prefer to repair their goods rather than buy new ones[7]. Only 44% broken electrical and electronic products are repaired[8]. Between 1985 and 2015, the duration of computer use was divided by 2.2, from 11 to 5 years[9]. A record 53.6 million tonnes of electronic waste was generated worldwide in 2019, up 21% in 5 years[10].

The increasing complexity of objects also poses a problem for repairers and is linked to the evolution of our societies where technology, electronics and digital technology have taken on an increasing role. These areas have been thriving markets for several years and the trend has been moving, for economic reasons, towards the miniaturization of parts.[11]. More generally, premature obsolescence is to be linked to the economic model which characterizes our society: a model of growth in which the law of the free market and competition reign as guiding principles with the accumulation of wealth and profit as its goal. Sell more to earn more. “Premature obsolescence fuels overproduction and overconsumption to artificially boost growth[12] ".

Premature obsolescence and the growth society

The link between premature obsolescence and the growth society is obvious. “Accelerated product obsolescence not only finds its source in the growth society, but also serves as its pillar. Strategies that reduce product lifespan encourage repurchase of new products, which generates long-term sales for companies and allows them to fuel revenue growth. These techniques also increase competition between companies which, in addition to standing out through the price of their products, can also influence the quality of their products.[13] » tells us Anaïs Michel.

In this way, premature obsolescence aggravates environmental deterioration. Indeed, it accelerates on the one hand the production of products composed of raw materials and on the other hand their disposal, which contributes to increasing the mass of existing waste. It therefore represents a huge waste of natural resources and energy! “According to an ADEME study, a home's equipment can represent up to 25% of its CO2 emissions. According to the results of this study, if the stock of washing machines, dishwashers and tumble dryers in France were extended by a lifespan of just one year, the gains would be 860,000 tonnes of C02 equivalent, i.e. emissions from 1.6 million households[14] ".

Premature obsolescence is opposed to a logic of circular economy which would like objects to last as long as possible by working on their design and by facilitating access to repair in particular. However, the circular economy is presented today as a major objective at all levels of political power.

What does the legislator do?

In Belgium, the subject is not new. Our country acted as a pioneer in 2012 by adopting a resolution in the Senate aimed at combating the planned obsolescence of energy-related products.[15]. In 2016, three bills were submitted to the Chamber (PS, ECOLO, Cdh). None are voted on. In 2019, once again, three legislative proposals from the same three parties resurfaced but none has been successful to date.

At European level, the term has appeared several times in different documents. In 2013, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) published an opinion[16] in which he strongly opposes blatant cases of planned obsolescence. He calls (already) for the display of the estimated lifespan of products to guide consumers' choices and renew their confidence as well as for the creation of a European Observatory of planned obsolescence. The European Parliament has also taken a position in various reports including the Durand report in 2017, which advocates the sustainability of products and the fight against obsolescence. The term appears there 26 times! The report calls for a common definition to be adopted at European level and a system that detects it to be put in place. Both documents note that it is the most disadvantaged people who suffer the most from obsolescence, as they turn to low-cost, unsustainable products and may go into debt to make these purchases. More recently, the European Commission indicated its desire to fight against the phenomenon in its new action plan for a circular economy.

Among the member states, France stands out for the adoption of a law in 2015 which condemns planned obsolescence. If this law has the merit of giving visibility to the subject, its application is very complicated as the elements of proof required to prove a case of obsolescence are difficult to implement.[17]. So far, two legal actions have been taken by the HOP association and resulted in sanctions against Apple and Epson. But in both cases, the reason for planned obsolescence was not accepted.

This observation pushes researcher Anaïs Michel to question the usefulness of a specific law on premature obsolescence. It invites us to question the relevance of existing laws and the improvements to be made to integrate the fight against cases of premature obsolescence. It mainly targets the European Directive on unfair commercial practices, the provisions of which, less demanding than French law, make it possible to tackle the phenomenon. Italy has also mobilized this directive during two victorious actions brought against Apple and Samsung[18].

Initiatives to encourage!

Penalizing cases of premature obsolescence is essential but must be accompanied by a series of other measures to improve the durability of our objects. The report of DRC environment highlighted three main ones: promoting eco-design and sustainable purchasing, encouraging better use of products and promoting repair. Each of these objectives is linked to specific measures. Displaying the lifespan, the degree of repairability of objects and the availability of spare parts would allow consumers to better guide their consumption choices and create a virtuous circle in favor of sustainable purchases. Making the availability of spare parts, plans and tools for objects obligatory, as well as putting in place tax advantages (VAT and reduced taxes) would help to encourage the repair of objects. Information campaigns could also be set up supported by our governments to raise awareness and inform consumers on these subjects. Some of these measures take place at the European level.

If some of the measures are the responsibility of political authorities, consumers can also partly resist this harmful phenomenon. Despite increasing technological complexity, learning more about your objects and their maintenance can considerably extend their lifespan. Several guides exist on this subject. Given the environmental and social impacts of the production of consumer objects, resisting the temptation to obtain new ones is also important. This requires a deeper questioning of our needs. Finally, prefer the option of repair when possible, through Repair Cafés in particular.

More broadly, these various measures will be insufficient if our societies do not manage to move beyond the capitalist model of growth which constitutes a real ecological impasse. Planned obsolescence is one of its manifestations and the fight against this phenomenon must start at the roots to generalize a fairer and more sustainable economic model.

Advice for citizen-consumers:

- So document from the French Ecological Transition Agency (ADEME), you will find numerous tips and links for properly maintaining your objects.

- The book " Daily IT eco-actions. A practical guide to action” by Bela LOTO HIFFLER will give you many ideas for using your objects more responsibly.

– If one of your devices has become too quickly unusable, feel free to report it on the Test Achats page « worn out too quickly »

– Different guides exist to carry out the most sustainable purchases possible, go visit the page sustainableproducts.fr.

– Repair Together offers on its site a repair directory which will allow you to find a repairer near you

– Always on the repair, the association IFIXIT offers numerous tutorials and guides to get started with the repair. A reference !

Geraldine Duquenne.

[1] The French HOP association is the reference association on planned obsolescence. She is at the origin of the two legal actions against Apple and Epson.

[2] The Belgian association Repair Together helps and supports initiatives in favor of sustainable use of resources, mainly repair through Repair Cafés.

[3] Planned obsolescence: Belgian consumer protection policies and measures, RDC environment, 2017.

[4] Referring to Tobias Brönneke.

[5] A. Michel, Is it relevant to legally define and penalize premature obsolescence practices? Analysis of French law in light of recent Italian decisions against Apple and Samsung, CRIDES Working Paper Series no. 5/2019; Conference on Law in Transition (2019 Brussels: Presses de l’Université Saint-Louis), p. 6.

[6] The following categorization is that proposed on the websites of the Repair Together and Stop Planned Obsolescence associations.

[7] Eurobarometer 2014.

[8] Ademe study 2007.

[9] GreenIT.fr, BORDAGE F. The lifespan of electronic equipment is declining, 2015.

[10] UN Global E-waste Monitor 2020.

[11] Moore's law is a purely economic law which aimed to reduce the size of the transistor by a factor of 2 every 18 months, the aim being to produce electronic circuits at low cost because smaller means cheaper.

[12] Home page of the Stop Planned Obsolescence website.

[13] Ibid, p. 1.

[14] See HOP article, “Planned obsolescence, the too often forgotten issue of climate policies”, August 2021.

[15] If the initial text aimed to make it compulsory to display the lifespan of electronic products and household appliances as well as their repairability, the text finally adopted provided few concrete elements and does not seem to have been followed by real progress.

[16] “ For more sustainable consumption: the lifespan of industrial products and consumer information to restore confidence”, CESE opinion 2013.

[17] For more details, see the article by Anaïs Michel referenced above.

[18] More details in the article by Anaïs Michel previously cited.


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