Is the throwaway era about to end? The past half century has given us toasters that are irreparable after a minor fault, T-shirts that quickly shrink or fade, and vacuum cleaners that need replacing after a few years. “Planned obsolescence” means old smartphones may perform worse after necessary updates, and products ranging from clothing to spectacles are regularly redesigned to encourage new purchases.
However the Swedish government’s plan to reduce the rate of VAT levied on repair work from 25% to 12% is the latest sign that Europeans are beginning to question the “take, make and throw away” culture of consumerism that lies at the heart of industrialised economies.
In France, planned obsolescence is now punishable by two years’ imprisonment with a fine of up to €300,000. Spain recently became the first country to set a target designed to increase reuse. Meanwhile Germany’s environment agency, the UBA, has commissioned research on the lifetime of electrical goods in order to develop strategies against obsolescence.
An EU end to throwaway culture
These policies need to be understood in the context of European Union initiatives aimed at advancing sustainability, notably on waste and the “circular economy”, in which materials are kept in use for as long as possible and ultimately recycled. For instance the Waste Framework Directive, approved in 2013, requires each member state to produce a waste prevention programme. To its credit, the UK’s then-coalition government was the first to do so. The minister overseeing waste policy, Dan Rogerson, even proclaimed that “products should be designed … with longer lifetimes, repair and reuse in mind”.
A 2015 EU Action Plan added to the momentum, committing the European Commission to investigate the extent of planned obsolescence and take action where necessary.
And the EcoDesign Directive, which has primarily been used to address energy efficiency, is also to be applied to product lifetimes. The directive already requires vacuum cleaners sold in the EU from September 2017 to have motors designed to last at least 500 hours. Other products may soon be subject to similar requirements.
Sweden’s VAT tweak is a small success for environmental campaigners, given the strong pressure on member states to have identical rates of VAT. But, sadly, it’s unlikely to increase repair work substantially. Research suggests that the tax reduction is unlikely to make a big enough difference to repair costs for people to change their behaviour, because social attitudes are so deeply embedded and, over time, the cost of replacing faulty goods has also become cheaper.
But it is a welcome signal that governments are beginning to respond to recent lobbying by Brussels-based environmental NGOs. Further change may be on the horizon, notably access to service manuals with technical information on products that would help independent repairers and users.
Repairs alone aren’t enough
The European Union’s circular economy initiative is highly significant. That said, a sustainable economy will demand much more than increased recycling, or “closing the loop”, not least because the processes involved in collecting discarded products, disassembling them into constituent materials and manufacturing new items use energy – usually from fossil fuels. Moreover, recycling metals, plastics and textiles is often subject to technical limitations that threaten quality. In many cases, virgin material has to be added to the recycled material, making 100% recycling impossible.
Real change will require increased product lifetimes so that less new stuff has to be manufactured. Repair and reuse are part of this. But it’s equally important that products are designed to last longer from the outset. This will requires profound cultural and systemic change, such that businesses are able to survive while selling fewer – but longer lasting – products and consumers choose to buy them and keep them. After all, no benefit is gained if products are designed for longevity and then discarded prematurely.
The extent to which a post-Brexit Britain will align itself to these positive trends remains unclear. Does the British public want to be freed from European legislation in order that companies are able to supply consumers with cheap, shoddy items destined for short lifetimes? Or would it prefer the incentives increasingly being offered by European partners to end the throwaway culture and create a more sustainable economy? We shall have to see.