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Longer Life
Better Than Reincarnation

Promoting Product Durability

Consumer durables all too often end up prematurely in landfill. Many do not last as long as in the past, most could be designed and manufactured to last longer, and some are discarded which still function. Far too little attention has been paid to durability by politicians, environmentalists, manufacturers and retailers in recent years, while many consumers are guilty of profligate behaviour.

By Tim Cooper  
First, despite increased environmental concern, the economy is not being steered onto an environmentally sustainable path. For example, the British Government has effectively rejected scientists' arguments that greenhouse gas emissions must immediately be reduced by at least 60%; its policy is to 'return' the level of emissions in 2000 to that prevailing in 1990. Little attention has been paid to possible medium term energy scarcities. The need for people in affluent industrial countries to reduce their consumption is barely on the political agenda, despite the implications for a world where population is rising fast and billions of relatively poor people aspire to the life styles of the rich. Many people in modern, liberal industrialised societies simply believe that they have a right to consume to their maximum potential. Politicians have not dared to deny their claim.

Second, the move towards increased environmental sustainability will necessitate a substantial reduction in the throughput of industrial economies. This requires a radical change in the relative price of labour and natural resources. As long as the full cost of extracting and using energy and raw materials is not included in the price of consumer durables (i.e. the environmental impact is not incorporated), there will be an undue economic incentive to replace items instead of repairing or upgrading them.

Third, a strategy which merely improves society's capacity to absorb waste will not suffice. It is a fallacy that there is no environmental impact involved in recycling. In order to overcome environmental problems created by the volume of consumption and waste in industrial economies it is necessary to take action which goes beyond mere recycling. Ultimately, it is more important to create longer lasting goods than to make them recyclable.

If pressure to move up the waste hierarchy is to be increased, some radical change is required. The following are proposed as recommendations to Government, local authorities, manufacturers, retailers, environmental and consumer organisations, and individuals.
Many people in modern, liberal bindustrialised societies simply believe that they have a right to consume to their maximum potential.


Recommendations

(i) Action at all levels of government

Ecological tax reform is necessary to achieve the right balance in the use of labour and natural resources and thus a prerequisite for sustainable development. It should take the form of phasing out employers' national insurance contributions and phasing in higher taxes on energy (excluding domestic heating) and raw materials. It should be revenue-neutral. As a 'front end' solution it would be a far more effective means of reducing waste than proposals such as a landfill levy.

Changes to VAT should be made to provide an increased incentive to the sale of longer lasting products, preferably throughout the European Union (EU). The zero rating of repair work might encourage people to repair rather than throw away serviceable products. In Britain, the Institute of Wastes Management has proposed the reduction or elimination of VAT on products made entirely from post consumer waste. Similar treatment should apply to products sold with significantly longer and more stringent guarantees than current industry norms.

In the EU Ecolabelling Scheme durability should in future be included among the criteria used in assessing relevant products.

Any EU proposals for 'take back' legislation should be carefully scrutinised to ensure that the reuse of products and components is encouraged rather than threatened.

Having publicly acknowledged the need for longer lasting products, government should, in developing its national waste strategy, outline the practical measures which it regards as necessary to encourage their manufacture and sale.

Government should promote the new economic indicators which are being developed. These provide a more credible measure of progress than GNP, which only measures the level of economic activity.

Since the publication of the OECD report the available information on product life, far from being improved, has become out of date. Government should therefore initiate a comprehensive research programme on product life to obtain the following:

adequate data on product life

improved understanding of the factors influencing life span, including consumer attitudes and behaviour

independent life cycle assessments of recycled and longer lasting products

an evaluation of the net employment impact of a strategy to increase product life

an assessment of the potential for new forms of environmental innovation associated with longer lasting products.

The Department of Trade and Industry in Britain is currently reviewing consumer guarantee legislation. If manufacturers (as distinct from retailers) assume more responsibility for guarantees, they might take more interest in long term product performance and have greater incentive to improve product durability. Reform might also help to pre-empt retailers from profiteering through the sale of extended warranties, which offer poor value for money.

One of the major obstacles to increased consumer demand for longer lasting products is the lack of information to enable them to judge whether to pay a premium price. Manufacturers and retailers should therefore be required by law to disclose the normal expected life span of consumer durables on the basis of reasonable conditions of use. Manufacturers should be required to keep spare parts throughout this period.

In order to encourage more repair and reconditioning work and thereby extend the life of products, the Government should promote the development of second hand shops and markets, although it should examine regulations to ensure that consumers are confident that second hand products such as electrical appliances are safe and obtained honestly.

Local authorities should develop strategies higher up the waste hierarchy. These should include targets for waste reduction and reuse, to complement their recycling targets, and a programme to promote community awareness of their importance.

Waste disposal authorities should improve the data available on discarded products at civic amenity sites and elsewhere, as a first step towards recovering a higher proportion of usable products and components. Obtaining such information has been made harder as a result of the contracting out of such sites to private sector operators.

Waste collection authorities should explore ways of ensuring that small appliances and other household goods are recovered rather than lost amongst other rubbish in large wheelie bins.

The greatest of the environmental challenges which lie ahead is of need to adopt sustainable patterns of production and consumption.


(ii) Action by manufacturers and retailers

Industry should assess the marketing potential of durability as well as recyclability. One of the main reasons why in many product sectors competition is based so heavily on price and cosmetic appearance is that consumers lack adequate information on the design life of products. They would be more likely to buy higher value products if they had greater certainty that the benefits of an increased service life would outweigh the extra cost. Irrespective of any legal requirements, therefore, manufacturers and retailers should improve the quality of 'point of sale' information on the anticipated life span of their products.

Manufacturers should offer much longer life guarantees within an overall context of developing a stronger commitment to providing service and not simply hardware. This was a key suggestion of the OECD report. Such guarantees should be offered free of charge at the point of sale and cover labour and parts for at least 10 years for most household products. Spare parts should be available for longer periods than current practice. Trade associations should amend their codes of conduct accordingly and manufacturers who guarantee parts availability in accordance with them should encourage retailers to display the appropriate information. Parts should be standardised where possible, which would be in the interest of consumers as this would increase their availability and make them cheaper.

Excessive delays for repair work is not unusual. One means of improving current practice might be for more companies to have computerised databases for repair and maintenance. Manufacturers ought to act more efficiently when supplying parts to independent service engineers and DIY repairers. They currently appear to lack an incentive because of the relatively small cash flow involved.

Regular servicing, together with high quality repairs, can make a significant contribution to extending product life spans. Service contracts should be encouraged, with explicit information given to the consumer as to the nature of servicing work carried out.

Industrial designers should apply the principles of 'eco design' to their work, designing products for durability, ease of repair and upgradability wherever possible.

Manufacturers should evaluate the potential for a pilot scheme for leasing to households a comprehensive range of consumer durables designed for durability and ease of repair.

Consumers are often dissuaded from carrying out even basic repairs by manufacturers, who are concerned about product liability and aware of the profits to be gained from repair work. Products should be designed to be repaired by owners wherever possible and sold with comprehensive repair manuals.

 


(iii) Action by environmental and consumer organisations

Environmental organisations should devote more of their resources to campaigning for movement up the waste hierarchy. Now that the momentum for recycling has been generated, they should develop more comprehensive proposals to achieve 'reduction' and 'reuse', within a context of waste minimisation.

Organisations such as the National Consumer Council and Consumers Association should be more active in responding to consumers' concern about durability and to the greater value for money offered by longer lasting products. Consumers should be encouraged to pay less attention to the 'point of sale' price and more to the anticipated 'cost per unit of service provided'.

The Sale and Supply of Goods Act was passed in Britain in November 1994 and durability is now one of the aspects of quality determining whether certain types of product are acceptable for sale. The interpretation of 'durability' by the courts should be carefully monitored by environmental and consumer organisations.

Such organisations have an important role in educating their members and the general public about the benefits of longer lasting products.

(iv) Individual action

Individuals must also play a part. As potential customers, they should demand better information about the durability of products and raise their expectations about the life expectancy of products.

Where there is no evidence from technical data that products have been substantially improved, consumers might do well to purchase end-of-range models, which are often heavily discounted.

Some manufacturers argue that the high incidence of returns to retailers results in substantial unnecessary waste. People should avoid returning undamaged products to shops, which is often a consequence of impulse buying.

Owners should understand the environmental significance of taking good care of their possessions. Periodic servicing can help to extend product life. Whenever possible products which stop functioning should be repaired, preferably locally, rather than discarded.

Fundamental change to our throwaway culture will be possible only if people resist the pressure to consume. Evidence that products which still function are being discarded suggests that many could make a greater effort to resist the temptation to buy replacement products prematurely.

Conclusion

The greatest of the environmental challenges which lie ahead is our need to adopt sustainable patterns of production and consumption. It is difficult to predict with certainty the speed at which a major transformation will be forced upon us, but the evidence is clear that change is imperative and it would be a great mistake to think that we have already done enough.

The development of recycling in recent years is welcome, but it will prove an obstacle rather than a stepping stone if it detracts attention from the more fundamental changes that are now required to reduce the excessive throughput of energy and materials in our economy. There is a longer life option which must now be chosen.

Tim Cooper is a researcher for the New Economics Foundation, London. An influential figure in green politics and former parliamentary candidate, he was co-founder of Christain Ecology Link and is the author of Green Christainity (Hodder and Stoughton, 1990).

This article is the final (and sixth) in a series. It is taken from a report Beyond Recycling, The longer life option. The report has been written as part of the New Economics Foundation's ongoing research work into Energy and Materials Conservation. It is published by the New Economics Foundation, 1st Floor, Vine Court, 112-116 Whitechapel Road, London, E11JE.

 
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