Whether it is washing machines, smartphones or TV sets: the service life of most electrical appliances is becoming shorter and shorter, says a new report by the Öko-Institut e.V. and Bonn University commissioned by the German Environment Agency (UBA).
UBA’s President Maria Krautzberger said: “Many appliances have much too short a life-span. This is ecologically unacceptable. The manufacture of products consumes precious resources, and pollutants and greenhouse gases are a strain on the environment and climate. It is time to think about minimum requirements of product lifetime and quality – a sort of minimum period of durability for electronic and electrical appliances. Many appliances are being replaced although they are still in good working order. It is also important that consumers use their appliances for a longer time.”
There are many different reasons for a premature purchase of a new appliance. In the consumer electronics and information technology sectors in particular, technological innovations and the desire for a new device are quite often the reason for making a purchase. For three-quarters of those surveyed, the desire for a better device is pivotal, even when it comes to large household appliances like refrigerators. The proportion of large household appliances which were replaced within less than five years due to a defect increased from 3.5% to 8.3% between 2004 and 2013. A consumer survey conducted for the study revealed that about one third of those polled are not satisfied with the service life of their appliances.
These facts are ecologically unacceptable. In all of the product groups surveyed (TV sets, notebooks, washing machines), short-lived products place a far greater burden on our environment than appliances with a longer service life. Take the example of washing machines: the energy demand and global warming potential during a life-time of 5 years is about 40% higher compared to a washing machine with a life-time of 20 years. These figures already take potential improvement of energy efficiency into account.
The current study could not find evidence of planned shortening of product lifetime (obsolescence) on the part of manufacturers. Manufacturers instead factor in a certain product lifetime according to target groups, applications and product cycles. For television sets, for example, consumers expect new developments within one year’s time. This innovation cycle may impair quality, and thus some sets are now only tested for a few well-known weak points and no longer comprehensively. This can reduce the duration of testing from several months to just a few weeks.
“The lack of transparency is a problem for consumers. One cannot tell by looking at a product how long it was designed to last. Price is also not always a reliable indicator either. For the sake of consumers and the environment, a system of labelling which expresses the typical life expectancy of an appliance in hours of use would be beneficial,” said Ms Krautzberger.
There is need for more research in this regard since the lifetime is not always measurable and easy to represent for all product groups. As concerns serviceability, appliances must be readily repaired which thereby lengthens their lifetime. This means among others easy-repair design and the availability of spare parts also to non-proprietary shops and merchants.
And last but not least, consumers themselves must assume a measure of responsibility. Smartphones, notebooks and flat screen TVs are now replaced although they are in perfectly good working order. Many cities already have initiatives and platforms in place for donating, sharing, exchanging or borrowing and lending appliances. The public sector can also assume a pioneering role, for example by prescribing a minimum service life for electronic appliances in public administrations.
The study on the development of strategies against obsolescence is the first detailed investigation of consumer behaviour, replacement patterns and the causes of defects in electrical and electronic appliances in the four product groups “large household appliances”, “small household appliances”, “information and communication technology”, and “consumer electronics”.
Source: Umwelt Bundesamt