Most of our electronic devices only live a short life. Though at best driving economic growth and employment for most of the last century, short product lifetimes have now become a major issue in the light of environmental and inequality crises facing most of the globe. In a particularly negative spotlight is “planned obsolescence”, which refers to the practice of designing products to have a shorter lifespan to increase the consumption of new products and boost profits. Introduced as a business strategy in the 1920s, the practice is emblematic of the pursuit of profits regardless of the social and environmental costs. This being said, not all devices become waste because of a deliberate strategy from manufacturers to replace them, other drivers might be at play, including the general culture of consumerism. Yet, researchers have observed a rise in practices that reduce products’ durability, as well as practices that impede life-saving repairs, as the share of products that are replaced due to technical defects, not consumer preferences, is increasing. This is not just a loss of money for the consumers but has devastating impacts on the environment.
In Europe, electronic devices form one of the fastest-growing waste streams. About 4.9 million tons of e-waste were collected in 2021, a 63% increase from 3 million tons in 2012. This figure is expected to grow substantially in the coming years, as 13.5 million tons of electronic products were placed on the market in 2021. The extraction and processing stages involved in electronics production are extremely material- and energy-intensive, producing vast greenhouse gas emissions. The production of devices thus requires an incredible amount of resources, just to be thrown in the bin a few years later. Further, the environmental impact does not end there, as e-waste contains toxins that are detrimental to the health of humans and ecosystems. Vast quantities of e-waste continue to be illegally shipped to countries without adequate infrastructure or protections for local populations or workers. Exporting e-waste to non-EU and non-OECD countries has been prohibited by EU law since 2006 and international law since 2019, however, it is estimated that around 352,474 tons of European e-waste is shipped to these regions each year.
About 4.9 million tons of e-waste were collected in 2021, a 63% increase from 3 million tons in 2012. This figure is expected to grow substantially in the coming years.
The biggest impacts from electronic devices occur during the production phase, so they are not caused by the energy needed to power the device. This means the only way to reduce these impacts is to produce fewer electronic products, making it incredibly important to keep devices in use for longer periods, reducing the need to replace them. To highlight the crucial difference that even a slightly longer lifetime can make, let us take the example of smartphones. The full lifecycle of Europe’s 600 million smartphones is responsible for 14 million tons of CO2eq emissions each year, whereby 72% of these occur during manufacturing, distribution, and disposal. The current average lifespan of a phone in Europe is only three years. Extending this by just one year would save 2.1 million tons per year by 2030 – the equivalent of taking more than a million cars off the roads. And that is just for one type of product.
Yet, instead of increasing lifespans, we are seeing a trend of shorter lifespans for many products, among other reasons, due to planned obsolescence. One textbook example of planned obsolescence is that of printers. Printer manufacturers lock consumers into buying incredibly expensive ink by including chips on their printers that block non-compatible or refilled cartridges, and in the worst case warn them to replace the cartridge before it is even empty. Some printers falsely display service alerts after just a few uses, misleading users into believing the printer is broken. The result? It is estimated that around half a million tons of imaging equipment are discarded in the EU every year, and an additional 150 thousand tons of waste that comprises just cartridges.
The full lifecycle of Europe’s 600 million smartphones is responsible for 14 million tons of CO2eq emissions each year, whereby 72% of these occur during manufacturing, distribution, and disposal.
Such cases of obviously planned, built-in obsolescence as in the cases of the printers’ “killer chips” are rare, as techniques are rarely this blatant. However, more subtle practices are just as effective in limiting a product’s lifetime, and more difficult to prove. These include anti-repair practices, limited durability of components, or the discontinuation of support for a certain product (think software updates). To remove the emphasis from the intention, some prefer “premature” or “early” obsolescence over “planned” obsolescence – acknowledging the urgency to address shortened product lifetimes regardless of the exact intentions of the manufacturer. Consumers often want to keep their products in use for longer: 77% of EU consumers have indicated that they would rather repair their devices than buy new ones, but barriers to repair put in place by manufacturers often make repairs unnecessarily expensive. Fact is that we need to keep our electronics in use for longer, and legislation should push producers to enable that.
The focus on proving intention has been a challenge in formulating successful policies against planned obsolescence, as we can see in the case of France. In 2015, France was the first country to criminalize planned obsolescence with a penalty of two years in prison and 300’000 Euro fine. While this was an important first step, the law made it almost impossible to enforce, as the consumer was required to prove not only that the manufacturer intentionally shortened the product’s lifetime, but also to that this had been done with the specific intention to increase the replacement rate of the product. As one might guess, this law has not seen a single conviction as of 2022. However, in 2021, the law was amended and the burden of proof for the intention to increase the replacement rate of the product was removed. After this amendment, consumers ‘only’ need to prove that the lifetime of the product was shortened intentionally – not that this was done specifically to increase the replacement rate of the product. Still, it will certainly continue to be difficult for consumers to file a successful lawsuit against a big company.
It is crucial that such challenges are better addressed in the pending EU legislative frameworks that address planned obsolescence, such as the Empowering Consumers for the Green Transition Directive and the Ecodesign for Sustainable Products Regulation, both of which aim to prohibit planned obsolescence practices, such as the use of software to render a product unusable, or the use of hardware devices that stop a product from working after a certain amount of time. Additionally, the Directive on Common Rules Promoting the Repair of Goods strengthens consumers’ right to repair a product and should hopefully put an end to anti-repair practices that artificially reduce a product’s lifetime. It is hoped that these policies will tackle planned obsolescence in a coordinated manner to properly address the many forms of this practice, as well as level the playing field and create local employment opportunities in the repair and refurbishment sector.
In 2015, France was the first country to criminalize planned obsolescence with a penalty of two years in prison and 300’000 Euro fine.
On a global level, things are moving slowly but steadily. Ecuador included measures against planned obsolescence in a 2017 law on requirements for manufacturers regarding the provision of information and spare parts, requiring inspections of publicly procured goods. Taking the lead in North America, the Canadian province of Québec recently proposed a new consumer protection bill banning planned obsolescence, framed as the use of any strategy aimed at limiting a device’s regular operating life. The bill, focusing on electronics, appliances, and cars, also includes a right to repair clause, including an extension of the availability of spare parts. In multiple countries, right to repair initiatives address planned obsolescence by ensuring the availability of spare parts or prohibiting anti-repair practices. Several states in the US are moving in this direction, Brazil has introduced an obligation to provide spare parts and components, even for a certain amount of time after the sale of the product has stopped, and reports from India laud advances on the topic as well.
These are all good news, and with EU legislation currently progressing, more is on the horizon – but we still need to get there. The movement is strong: Right to Repair campaigns* across the globe unite NGOs, community repair groups, and repair and refurbishment businesses in their fight against barriers to repair. Now is a crucial time to join them in their efforts to hold policymakers accountable and demand they keep their ambitions high for a strong legislation with no room for loopholes and empty promises, benefitting the environment and consumers.
*The Right to Repair Europe coalition fights to remove the barriers to repair, so that products can last longer. Representing over 100 organizations from 21 European countries, it brings together environmental NGOs and repair actors such as community repair groups, social economy actors, spare parts distributors, self-repairers, repair and refurbishing businesses, and citizens advocating for their right to repair.
This essay has been published as part of IT for Change’s Big Tech & Society Media Fellowship 2022.