Workers sort through a pile of used mobile phones in New Delhi, India

In 2016, 44.7 million tonnes of household appliance and electronic device waste was generated around the world—a volume expected to increase by 17 per cent by 2021. (Bloomberg Creative Photos)

Innovation | Technology

Is consumer cynicism of manufacturers to blame for short lifespan of household appliances, electronic devices?

How long did you keep your last cellphone? What about your toaster? Not long enough, you say. But whose fault is it?

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For the past decade and a half, fingers have pointed to manufacturers, who were accused of taking advantage of consumers by limiting their products’ useful life. However, a nationwide study published by Équiterre in May 2018, has put things into perspective, claiming that ordinary Canadians are also responsible for the excessive consumption of household appliances and electronic devices (HAEs). According to the study, 86 per cent of respondents say their HAEs are deliberately designed to have a short lifespan, a belief that partly justifies their being replaced at a faster pace than they should be. Only 15 per cent of respondents reported not having purchased any household appliance in the previous two years (17 per cent for electronic devices).

As a direct corollary, 60 per cent of Canadian consumers keep their HAEs for fewer than five years, due mainly to a cost-benefit analysis they make (price paid versus perceived value). In other words, why repair a low-cost HAE when spare parts cost more than purchasing a new one? In fact, only 19 per cent of respondents said they made repairs to their household appliances due to product failure (compared with 26 per cent for electronics).

As Fabien Durif, director of the Observatoire de la Consommation Responsable (observatory for responsible consumption) at the ESG UQAM (school of management sciences at the Université du Quebec à Montréal) explained during the study’s unveiling, consumer cynicism of manufacturers and retailers is also due to an improper use of the expression “planned obsolescence.” He notes that there are different types of obsolescence: technological obsolescence (such as when a new app is incompatible with older phone models), economic obsolescence (such as when spare parts are unavailable) and psychological obsolescence (which relates to esthetics, ecological factors, influence of new trends, fashion, and so on).

The latter applies especially to electronics, where companies use various factors, including promotions and credit card loyalty programs, to greatly influence replacement behaviour. In 2016, 44.7 million tonnes of HAE waste was generated around the world—a volume expected to increase by 17 per cent by 2021.

“People are no longer looking to fill needs, but wants. They allow emotions to win over sound consumer strategies,” said Olivier Bourgeois, of the consumer protection agency Option Consommateurs, at the roundtable held at the study’s unveiling.

Elsewhere around the world

Also in attendance was Laetitia Vasseur, co-founder of Halte à l’obsolescence programmée (HOP or Stop Planned Obsolescence), a consumer protection agency whose main focus is to give consumers a voice so they can have HAEs that are not only more durable, but also repairable. Sweden has taken steps to this end by implementing a 12 per cent tax on some repairs (down from the 25 per cent), a tax incentive for both consumers and service providers.

France has also taken matters into its own hands, by being the only country to consider obsolescence a misdemeanour. Under the legal provisions, HOP filed a complaint against Epson last year for deliberately making ink cartridges (and consequently printers) unusable even if they still contain 20 to 50 per cent ink. These legal provisions in France have also driven the European Parliament to issue a report to combat obsolescence and the United Nations to call for an extension of product lifespans.

In January, HOP filed a complaint against Apple, when the company admitted that some updates slowed down its old iPhones. In the United States, Apple faces 60 lawsuits in 16 courts for deceptive trade practices, false advertising and planned obsolescence. Various other lawsuits have been filed in several other countries, including Canada, Italy and South Korea.

Beyond filing complaints, HOP is seeking to forge coalitions with consumers, institutions and companies. Vasseur believes it is not only a duty to consumers, but also an opportunity for pioneering companies to think up of new products while enhancing their reputation—and building more trust.