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Longer Lasting Products

  The previous article (Issue 18) suggested that recycling does not represent the 'ultimate' green solution to our throwaway culture. In assessing the means by which to cut the amount of waste generated in modern industrial economies, the standard model used is the 'hierarchy of waste management options', which prioritises different measures for dealing with waste. The order in this hierarchy suggests that increasing the durability of products and improving after-sales services, in order to extend their use, ought to take precedence over recycling, which is rated third.
By Tim Cooper  

Recycling reduces waste but does not minimise it an important distinction. It is essentially an 'end-of-pipe' response (although recyclability may require modifications in design at the start of a product's life cycle). As such, it barely affects the inherent flaws in a production system which make manufacturers dependent upon ever-increasing throughput for their profitability. By contrast, increased durability requires more radical change at the point of production. It represents a 'front end' response.

In its major report Sustainable Development: the UK Strategy, the Government suggests that the hierarchy of waste management options mirrors the requirements of sustainable development. Acknowledging past flaws, the report then states: "it is salutary, therefore, to consider the extent to which current waste management practice in the UK operates towards the bottom of this hierarchy."(H.M. Government, 1994, pp. 150-1)

Most significantly, having identified waste minimisation as at the top of the hierarchy, the report continues: "Effective waste minimisation is not just a question of reducing unwanted outputs from the manufacturing process. It also involves producing...longer lasting products" (ibid). This recognition is welcome, but it now needs a Government led initiative to encourage appropriate action.

This section thus explores the potential environmental impact of a strategy to encourage longer lasting products, the benefits to consumers, and the implications for industry and government. It should be stressed that any such strategy should be to optimise rather than maximise life span. Durability should not be treated as an end in itself. There must be allowance for the fact that the gradual replacement of outmoded models may bring environmental gains, especially if the environmental performance of products is improved through technological advance. For example, Porsche established a research programme on the potential for a 'long-life car' and studied cars designed to last 25-30 years but concluded that the optimal life span would be 18-25 years (Nieuwenhuis and Wells, 1994, pp. 160-1). Before considering the implications of increasing the life span of consumer durables, it will be helpful to highlight some of the main influences upon it.


Three of the key influences upon the life span of consumer durables may be summarised as fitness, functions and fashion.

The failure of a product to work effectively, a loss of fitness, is the most obvious explanation for the discarding of products. Whereas a century ago products were manufactured to last as long as possible, most now have a predetermined 'design-life'. The ease with which a product can be repaired is an important factor. The increased complexity of products sometimes makes them more difficult to repair, especially with electronic devices such as printed circuit boards. A product's life span is also affected by the quality of care given to it by the owner and the owner's expectation of future reliability and service life.

People's ability to get products repaired may well depend on the availability of spare parts. Although trade associations have codes of practice, recommended periods for stocking parts are sometimes below the average life span of a product. For example, AMDEA (the Association of Manufacturers Domestic Electrical Appliances) recommends to its members that parts for refrigerators and freezers are stocked for eight years even though such appliances typically last for ten to twelve years. Some companies vary from the industry norm: the Consumers Association found that appliance manufacturer Miele keeps functional parts for 15 years, whereas Haden stocks parts for only 2-4 years.

Another important influence is technological change, which leads people to replace aging products with new models which may appear of higher quality or offer more extensive functions. For example, computers have become more powerful with each generation of microprocessor, washing machines have faster spin speeds, telephones contain new features such as last number redial, and televisions have remote control and stereo sound. Occasionally genuine environmental improvements are offered, such as increased energy efficiency.

Some products are upgradable and consequently there is less pressure to replace them. Personal computers can be upgraded with faster microprocessors, for example, and in Germany well over a million cars have been retrofitted with catalytic converters (Nieuwenhuis and Wells, 1994, p. 167). Currently, however, few consumer products are designed to be readily upgraded.

Thirdly, replacement sales are stimulated through the influence of periodic changes in design which are essentially concerned with fashion. Superficial changes are made to the appearance, of , say, electrical goods for no purpose other than to make past models appear out of date and encourage people to replace them as quickly as possible, even if they still function effectively. Annual or seasonal 'face lifts' are also applied in order to inspire sales staff to appear eager and excited about products to customers, in the hope that this might increase sales.

... increased durability requires more radical change at the point of production.

The cultural context

The main obstacles to increased product life are not technological. As the OECD report concluded, citing a leading scholar, R. T. Lund: "From a technical point of view there is no question that longer-lived appliances could be made. This is freely agreed upon by manufacturers of these products" (OECD, 1982, p. 15). More important are the cultural and economic pressures which generate the throwaway mentality which has become so prevalent in society. In short, society has become more acquisitive, individualistic and profligate, each of which has an impact on product life.

As society has become increasingly acquisitive, people have come to expect that certain consumer durables will need to be regularly replaced, whereas once they were regarded as long term investments and lasted for several decades. Sofas, which are replaced on average every 8 years, are an example. Demand for innovative products such as microwaves and portable telephones tends to grow rapidly. In addition, people have a strong preference for products which are new and for these there is an extra 'virginity value'. This is reflected in the heavy depreciation in the price of second hand goods: the sales value of a car, for example, drops by 50% after the first three yearsbarely 25% of its expected life span.

This trend is long establishedR. H. Tawney's The Acquisitive Society was published in 1921and is reinforced by a shift in our political culture toward individualism. Market pressures have been used to steer people toward private ownership. The relaxation of credit controls a decade ago, for example, enabled the purchase of consumer durables without a deposit. In contrast, shared or communal facilities, such as launderettes, tend to be held in low esteem. Moreover, it often cost little more to purchase than to rent items such as televisions.

At the same time, despite this individualism, people do not live or act in total isolation. Each individual's behaviour in buying products and services is influenced by that of others, which is in turn affected by societal aspiration. In other words, the overall level of consumption is not simply the sum of isolated choices, but may partly be explained by social psychology.

In economic debate there is acceptance across all political boundaries of 'consumer sovereignty', the idea that social welfare is maximised when the demands of individual consumers are treated by Government and industry as of paramount importance. This can be criticised on at least two grounds. Firstly, it depends on a false assumption that consumers are autonomous, able to be viewed and understood outside of a social or environmental context. Secondly, it implies that people have an unqualified 'right to consume', which in effect represents a denial that there are absolute environmental limits to consumption. There are also philosophical and, more specifically, ethical objections to reducing people to mere 'consumers'.

Three of the key influences upon the life span of consumer durables may be summarised as fitness, functions and fashion.

The third dimension which needs to be touched upon briefly is profligacy. People often criticise the economic 'system' or blame others for our throwaway culture, but many do not themselves keep products for as long as they could. One survey, albeit modest in scale, found that around a quarter of electrical appliances discarded at civic amenity sites were still functioning and a further quarter could be repaired for a minimal cost. It would certainly be wrong to depict people in general as reluctant victims of fashion. Fashion serves as a means by which many people can display affluence to others and possession of a 'latest model' is an important influence on purchasing behaviour. This is nothing newThorstein Veblen defined it almost a century ago, in Theory of th Leisure Class, as 'conspicuous consumption'.

Not surprisingly, then, there is an inverse correlation between income and the average life expectancy of consumer durables. Relatively expensive products are replaced less frequently during economic recessions. From a global perspective, they tend to be maintained for much longer periods in the poorest countries. This international dimension is highly significant. Many consumer durables are imported into affluent, high-wage countries from countries where labour costs are relatively low. One of the consequences is that people in the richer industrialised countries are able to afford to purchase consumer durables, but when they need to be repaired this is relativelyperhaps prohibitivelyexpensive because repairs are carried out with higher paid domestic labour.

Environmental implications

The overall impact of these powerful and complex influences upon consumer behaviour has led to an economy in which many products have sub-optimal life spans. What advantages, therefore, are offered by seeking to change this?

First, the potential for environmental gains. A general increase in the life span of consumer durables would reduce the throughput of energy and materials, resulting in less use of finite resources, lower emissions of pollutants (including greenhouse gases), and a smaller amount of residual waste to dispose of as landfill.

Comprehensive data is not available, but a rough, common sense estimate would suggest that doubling the life span of products should halve their net environmental impact. In the late 1970s the study by Porsche of long-life cars concluded that if cars were built to last for 18-25 years there would be a 55% saving in materials, while research by the Batelle Research Centre in Geneva found that increasing the average life span of cars from 10 to 20 years would almost halve the consumption of energy used in production (Nieuwenhuis and Wells, 1994, pp. 160-1; OECD, 1982, p. 58; Stahel and Reday-Mulvey, 1981, p. 75). More recently, a hybrid cool storage facility, combining the features of a traditional kitchen cupboard and a refrigerator, has been designed at the university of Wuppertal; this is intended to last as long as the house and to need seven times less material than the ten conventional fridges which it would replace during its life span.

Environmental benefits from increasing the life span of products by improved design and appropriate after-sales care would normally exceed those from recycling, not least because most of the components remain physically intact. In addition, the various methods of extending the life of products can usually be carried out locally, whereas the processes involved in delivering discarded products to recycling sites and in manufacturing and distributing replacements involves considerable transportation.

The main argument on environmental grounds against increased product life concerns the possible sacrifice of improved energy efficiency in new electrical products such as washing machines and personal computer.

Such research as has been published suggests that for major electrical appliances the scale of most environmental impacts is greatest in the use phase of product's life cycle, rather than during the production, distribution or disposal phases (e.g. UK Ecolabelling Board, 1992). Even so,it is extremely doubtful that improved energy performance could justify replacing a functioning product; the extra energy involved in replacing a car, for example , is likely to offset any benefit in terms of improved fuel efficiency in newer models according to Sweden's vehicle testing authority (Nieuwenhuis and Wells, 1994, p.166).

It should also be noted that environmental improvements in new models of products are sometimes offset by other innovations. In cars, for example, the weight of extra features such as electric motors for windows and sunroofs often cancels out gains in basic fuel efficiency. Moreover, technological change may increase the environmental impact; frost-free refrigerators, for example, have a higher energy consumption than conventional models, and the average new vacuum cleaner uses more energy than those being replaced. In any case, it should be emphasised that in most new ranges the products are not improved in terms of environmental impact.

Another concern about increasing a product's durability is the possibility of increased materials consumption for thicker surfaces or add-on diagnostic parts, and the use of non-recyclable materials, coatings and fillers. Such concerns may occasionally be valid. A more likely requirement for increased durability, however, is better quality materials, fixtures and fittings, which would not necessarily have a greater environmental impact.

In summary, therefore, the effects on the environment of longer lasting products will almost invariably be positive.

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

This article is the fourth 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, E1 1JE.
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