France is breaking new ground with preliminary investigations into programmed obsolescence by Apple and Epson. But at a European level, the debate on product life-cycles is not taking place, Pascal Durand said in an interview with EURACTIV France.
Pascal Durand is a French Green MEP. He is the author of a European Parliament report on “a longer lifetime for products: benefits for consumers and companies”.
Durand spoke to EURACTIV France’s Cécile Barbière.
What is programmed obsolescence?
Everyone knows about the issue of programmed obsolescence. Anyone who has ever owned a telephone, computer or printer will have had first-hand experience of it.
It is a logic that has been around for more than a decade – and not necessarily a fraudulent one – that ensures products need to be replaced regularly. It means growth depends on the renewal of products. The idea is to sell more for less, but it doesn’t take into account the impact on the environment.
France’s 2015 energy transition law outlawed programmed obsolescence. Two preliminary investigations into Epson and Apple have just been opened back to back. What impact can these first investigations have?
The fact that these investigations have been opened at all proves that the law has a solid basis. But proving the intentional nature of programmed obsolescence is very difficult. Often, the only way to prove it is with documents obtained by a former employee-turned-whistleblower.
For my part, I was not in favour of the issue of programmed obsolescence being dealt with by the courts. But the fact that the practice has been outlawed in France means the media spotlight is turned on the incriminated companies when a complaint is made. This seems to be an effective approach, as long as the case is not thrown out.
The crime of programmed obsolescence is punishable by two years in prison and a fine of €300,000. Is that really a deterrent for companies like Apple?
For a company like Apple the reputational damage, rather than the fine itself, that is the deterrent. In the case of Volkswagen and Dieselgate, for example, there have hardly been any sanctions but the company’s image has suffered and it has had an effect on their production of diesel vehicles.
On the other hand, if the legal complaint is successful, the company’s competitors can launch trade actions and demand reparations for damages incurred. And these penalties can be much heavier.
Are there other examples of legislation in European countries that allow for the prosecution of programmed obsolescence?
France is the only country that can penalise programmed obsolescence. Europe cannot act on it because it has no competence in criminal matters. Europe has laws on fraud, on unfair competition, but the criminalisation of programmed obsolescence is unique to France.
You wrote a report on programmed obsolescence. What recommendations do you make for tackling this phenomenon at European level?
There are several possibilities. I am thinking of the example of Sweden, which reduced VAT on products that can be easily repaired. We could create a label of reparability at European level, to act as a consumer guide.
Other measures are also possible, like imposing a minimum period of availability for spare parts or a minimum useful life for products. For example, giving a guaranteed minimum number of cycles for washing machines or a number of kilometres for cars.
But it is not only up to legislators to impose these criteria. It is also up to manufacturers, retailers and consumers.
Concretely, since the report was adopted last July, has there been any progress on European legislation?
What the EU can do is begin the conversation, because the subject is completely inexistent at European level. It has just been mentioned in certain texts, such as the eco-design directive.
The question has been given a boost by the Parliament, and that is progress. But the Parliament has no legislative initiative, so we are dependent on the Commission, which promised to revisit the subject of programmed obsolescence, but which has not yet done so.
We will officially tell the Commission that we expect concrete action. There are many possible ways forward but the issue has to be put on the agenda.
The Commission recently presented a legislative package on the circular economy. So why was programmed obsolescence not mentioned in it?
It is incomprehensible that the issue of programmed obsolescence was not taken into account in this package. It is incomprehensible not to take action on the lifetime of products. When I asked the internal market Commissioner the question in 2014, it was the first time she had heard of the issue. This is simply not a conversation that is happening in Europe at the moment.
Who suffers the most from programmed obsolescence: European consumers, companies or the environment?
With programmed obsolescence, we have seen the disappearance of the economy based on after-sales service. The repair trades have gradually disappeared, and these jobs that cannot be delocalised have vanished as companies look for economic gains by moving their industrial operations to developing countries where labour is cheap. This evolution is partly responsible for the destruction of Europe’s industrial jobs.
And since European countries have continued to subsidise the companies that work in this way, the environmental and social externalities have never really been accounted for. Today, for example, we can say that Europe and the United States are largely responsible for China’s carbon footprint.
The second thing is that we have also pillaged the world’s natural resources, thinking that nature is just there to provide for human needs. Today we are realising that this is not viable.