A recent study commissioned by the German Environment Agency (Umweltbundesamt – UBA) has found that the average lifespan of electrical appliances is shrinking, with the percentage of items replaced due to defects rising from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2013.
The report aimed to gather information on how the ‘useful life of products’ affects their environmental impact, and, taking a step that is arguably unusual for governmental bodies in our current pro-consumption/linear economic model, the report also specifically aims to ‘[develop] strategies against obsolescence.’
The study showed that rapid innovation of high-tech products, in conjunction with their relatively short physical lifespans, is creating a huge impact on the environment by increasing the volume of electrical and electronic waste produced.
This is partly due to obsolescence, of which there are a few main types: Planned obsolescence is the deliberate shortening of a product’s usage time by the manufacturer in order to encourage consumers to buy new products. Psychological obsolescence occurs when consumers reject an older product for a new one due to the novelty factor or new (and increasingly insignificant?) innovations, and economic obsolescence occurs due to the lack of repairability of a product, including a lack in the availability of repair services or parts.
Expectations and Contradictions
A third of consumers surveyed for the study reported that they were dissatisfied with the lifespan of their products and would prefer them to last longer. But 75% of consumers surveyed reported that the desire for a better device was integral to their decision to replace appliances, ie. people replace things because they want a better one, not because the old one has reached the end of its ‘useful life.’
The study found no evidence to support the theory of shadowed figures with steepled fingers in boardrooms deliberately designing obsolescence into their products, but it was noted that a particular lifetime was often ‘factored in’ according to target groups, product cycles or applications. Reportedly, customers expect product lines – such as TV sets or smartphones – to be improved at least once a year, and this focus on innovation-for-innovation’s-sake means that product quality may suffer, since a faster innovation cycle may result in poorer testing of appliances, lasting perhaps weeks rather than months.
The report concludes to increase product lifetime, appliances must be readily repairable. This means the implementation of designs allowing easy repair and making spare parts available to non-proprietary shops. The report also notes that legislators could be incredibly influential by prescribing a minimum service life for appliances. The report recommends these changes in design and public legislation go hand-in-hand with increasing use of donating, sharing, exchanging, borrowing or lending platforms, which lengthen product lifespans.