Academics probe built-in obsolescence of fridges, notebooks

NEC Advanced Personal Computer

NEC Advanced Personal Computer [Niv Singer/Flickr]

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”.

Various reasons

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%.

EU dismissive

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.

Maria Krautzberger, the President of the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA), which commissioned the study, said:

“With the Ecodesign Directive and eco-labelling schemes such as Blue Angel, we already have instruments that can be used to guarantee minimum product longevity and improve the information available for consumers. Our study will now be investigating how these requirements can be broadened and assessed,” she said.

Johannes Kleis, head of communications at BEUC, the European consumer’s organisation, said:

“When big household appliances such as washing machines and refrigerators fail less than 5-years after purchase they do clearly not meet consumers' expectations. On top of that it’s bad for the environment. There is an urgent need for the EU to step up efforts to extend the lifetime of products.

“What we need are strict design requirements, the integration of product durability as an Ecolabel requirement and better consumer information about the expected lifetime of a product. Prolonging the legal guarantee beyond the current 2-year period would be a very effective deterrent against built-in obsolescence and help increase the lifetime of consumer goods. Together with our members we are running a campaign to make products more sustainable and strengthen the rights of consumers when products fail.”

Carsten Wachholz, the European Environmental Bureau’s Product Policy Officer, said:

“There is a need for action on two levels. First, we could set Ecodesign requirements which make products more repairable and longer-lasting. This will help prevent the technical failures that lead to products being replaced early. Second, the Commission should make it easier to re-use or refurbish products, which are still functional when disposed, and it can do this through its Circular Economy Package. These combined measures would be good for innovative businesses, for consumers and for the environment.”

Paolo Falcioni, Director-General of the European Committee of Domestic Equipment Manufacturers (CECED), a trade body, said:

"CECED considers it very important that trust and confidence in household appliances is maintained. Any attempt to mislead consumers must be condemned. We note that the recent German study didn’t find any evidence of such practices”.

To reduce the environmental impact of products from the design phase onwards, the EU adopted a Framework Directive setting ecodesign requirements for energy-using products (EuP) in 2005.

The aim of the directive is that manufacturers of the energy-using products should, at the design stage, be obliged to reduce the energy consumption and other environmental impacts of products.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Eco-design requirements for energy-using products (EuP)

The first 19 energy-using product groups for which the EU executive wants energy efficiency standards to be established - including heating equipment, lighting, domestic appliances and electric motors - was selected during a transitional phase after the adoption of the directive in July 2005.

In July 2008, the Commission proposed extending the scope of ecodesign rules to cover products which have an indirect impact on energy consumption during use, such as window frames and water taps. The recast directive was adopted in 2009. 

Currently the scope covers more than 40 product groups, including boilers, lightbulbs and fridges that are responsible for 40% of the EU greenhouse gas emissions.

  • Late 2015: Final results of the study expected to be published by the Oeko Institut and the University of Bonn


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