Researchers at the Öko-Institut and the University of Bonn found that consumers were replacing their fridges, flatscreen TVs and notebooks more and more frequently. But how much of that is down to “built-in obsolescence” is still unclear.
“Today, more electrical and electronic devices are being replaced even if they are still functioning,” said Rainer Griesshammer, a member of the Öko-Institut’s Executive Board.
In many cases, technological advances are the trigger, Griesshammer said. “We see this happening a lot with televisions,” he noted, pointing to consumer’s cravings for cutting-edge technology.
But he also remarked that an increasing share of white goods – fridges, washing machines and dryers – were being replaced within five years of their purchase “because of a technical defect”.
So do manufacturers deliberately shorten the lifespan of their products? To find out, the researchers collected statistics on various types of household goods, consumer electronics and IT products, for the period 2004-2012.
But the answer for the time being is unclear, the academics admitted.
“The shortening of appliance first-use duration has varied reasons,” said Maria Krautzberger, president of the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA), which commissioned the study.
For flatscreen TVs, more than 60% were being replaced because consumers wanted an upgrade, while a quarter (25%) of purchases were made to replace a faulty product.
The picture is different for white goods such as washing machines, dryers and fridges.
For these products, only one third of purchases were made to replace an appliance that was still functioning. In fact, for a majority of them – between 55 and 57% – the appliances were being purchased to replace a faulty product. This can be explained by the relatively long lifespan of these products, which are being replaced on average every 13 years (a decrease of around one year).
But the study found the percentage of white goods being replaced within the first five years due to a technical defect has increased noticeably – from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2012.
The same trend can be observed with notebooks. While first-use duration has remained fairly constant (around five or six years), more and more were being replaced because of a technical defect.
“In 2004, 70% of functioning notebooks were replaced as a result of technological innovations and consumers’ desire for an upgrade, but in 2012/2013, this had fallen to around 25%,” the researchers found. In parallel, the number of notebooks being replaced because of a technical defect had risen to 25%.
The researchers were careful not to accuse manufacturers of deliberately building appliances with a shorter lifespan.
Still, they said they would enquire further until the final results of the study are published, in late 2015.
EU officials contacted by EURACTIV were dismissive at this stage, saying it would be premature to comment officially until the study ends in late 2015.
“The Commission has so far seen no evidence to justify specific requirements addressing such concerns under eco-design,” the official said.