France pushes for product ‘lifetime’ labelling

Tights are one product that have been engineered to wear out quicker in order to boost repeat sales. [Shutterstock]

In a first draft roadmap on circular economy, the French government is thinking about supporting a voluntary product “lifetime” label. But such an idea could only become mandatory at European level. EURACTIV.fr reports.

Long gone are the days when washing machines used to last 20 to 30 years. While your grandmother still uses the coffee pot she received as a wedding present, you might already be on your second one in four years.

Nowadays, most household appliances are affected by so-called planned obsolescence. A business strategy used by companies that deliberately shortens a product’s lifespan in order to increase repeat sales of that product.

The most affected are smartphones, printers, and even simple things such as women’s tights.

The textile (nylon) used to make tights is actually very hard-wearing,  whilst this is good news for consumers, such sturdiness and durability do not make customers by more. That leads to lost profits for manufacturers.

That is why the chemical formula was altered to weaken the fabric. Tights nowadays are worn out or ripped after two to five uses. According to the HOP association (Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée, an association against planned obsolescence), “annual spending on tights can be as much as €216 per person”.

With a view to countering these practices, the French government plans to implement a label for product “life”, this would give products a grade from one to ten according to criteria such as repairability, sturdiness, and durability.

Austria already has a label of excellence for household appliances that grades their durability and repairability.

The display of such a label in France would be on a voluntary basis and should be implemented by 1 January 2020, according to the first draft of the roadmap on circular economy, currently in the public consultation phase until 25 February.

Therefore, it is up to the brands to choose whether to use the proposed label or not. “Ideally the label could be taken up at a European level and displayed alongside the (existing) energy label, “ the government said in a statement.

No action at EU level

The French government will also put forward the subject of the extension of warranties at European level. The Minister for Ecological Transition would like to extend the warranty on washing machines from 2 to 5 years.

HOP believes that the French government should take this a step further and make the labelling compulsory. “It is not enough to simply postpone responsibility for action on a European scale, but to set an example in France, whilst arguing in favour of a broader compliance with best practices in Europe.

France has been at the forefront in the field for several years. Planned obsolescence was made a criminal offence in the 2015 law on energy transition.

Paris is trying to encourage others to follow its example but the Commission does not seem interested. There was no reference to planned obsolescence in its own circular economy package.

In the European Parliament, it is French MEP Pascal Durand who brought up the subject and managed to get an own-initiative report on the extension of product lifetime approved in July 2017.

In the report, the Parliament calls on the Commission to encourage and facilitate “measures that make the option to repair goods attractive to the consumer,” and to “encourage, where practicable, the establishment of minimum resistance criteria covering […] robustness, repairability and upgradeability for each product category from the design stage onwards”.

Following on from the French and Austrian examples, MEPs also asked the Commission to consider “a voluntary European label, covering in particular: the product’s durability, eco-design features, upgradeability in line with technical progress and repairability”.

In response to the Parliament’s call for a European label, the Commission plans to “progressively introduce sustainability and repairability criteria into the already exisitng and mandatory energy label, in accordance with each product. Starting with household appliances (such as refrigerators and washing machines)”, said a Commission spokesperson. ” The first results of a possible   repairability label for these products are expected for 2020-2021.”

Durand: The debate on programmed obsolescence is not happening in the EU

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.

Other countries in Europe are also taking measures to promote the circular economy. In Norway and in Iceland, the duration of legal warranties is five years, and six years in Ireland, England and Wales, said HOP.

As for Sweden, the country has a reduced VAT rate for repair services and encourages consumers to repair their household appliances by allowing them to deduct 50% of the labour cost off their taxes.

But France is the only country to have implemented penalties for planned obsolescence.

Penalising planned obsolescence

This public consultation is taking place while two preliminary investigations are underway against Apple and Epson. The two “tech” giants are accused of deliberately shortening the life of their products.

While hard evidence is hard to come by, consumer testimonies keep coming in. Many saw a slowdown in their iPhones following an update, or the release of new models. Apple  confessed that it was deliberately tampering with the performance of older models. For HOP this admission was the last straw: it was time to retaliate.

“Everything is orchestrated to force consumers to replace their smartphones. However with each phone costing more than €1,200, more than the minimum wage, such practices are unacceptable and should not go unpunished. It is our mission to defend consumers and the environment against this waste organised by Apple,” said Laëticia Vasseur, co-founder of the HOP association, the same association that filed the preliminary complaints against Apple and Epson.

Since 2015, planned obsolescence has been an offence punishable by two years imprisonment and a fine ranging from €300,000 to up to 5% of the average annual turnover of the accused company.

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