European Policymakers Plot a Path Past Planned Obsolescence

I crawled out from underneath my refrigerator last Sunday, peeled a cobweb off my forehead, and cursed. My refrigerator has been on the fritz, and the starter capacitor was failing. Of all the kinds of technology to operate intermittently, a refrigerator is about the worst. They really need to get cold—and stay cold—consistently or they’re just not worth having around. My fridge repairs are always nail-biting—will the part get here before I run out of ice? Should I just give in and buy a replacement?

Alas, my traumatic experience with a failing refrigerator is surprisingly common. Appliances are breaking sooner and with more regularity than ever before. For example, 40% of people are now having to replace washing machines every 6 years—and Öko Institut research found that on average washing machines break two full years sooner than a decade ago. If this trend continues, we may be replacing our appliances as frequently as we swap phones. While getting a new phone every once in a while might be fun, lugging out a broken washing machine is decidedly less so.

iFixit's answers forum helps end planned obsolescence

We rely on technology for more and more in our lives, but that technology has become shockingly undependable. That’s why European policymakers are starting to focus on product longevity as well as efficiency. This week, they are debating ecodesign measures that have the potential to give quality products a fairer shot.

I asked Chloé Fayole, who participated in the discussions on behalf of the European Environmental Citizens Organisation for Standardisation (ECOS), what they were hoping to achieve. “Consumers are forced to discard products sooner than they want because repair is made impossible or unaffordable. Our hope is for products can be disassembled for repair, and have spare parts and service manuals available. This would be a big win for consumers and independent repairers.”

‘Durable’ appliances that are anything but

Traditional, high-end brands like Miele and Siemens are forced to compete for retail space with no-name products from brands like ‘Amica’ and ‘Exquisit.’ And I can understand how we got here—who wants to pay €600 for a washing machine when you can get one for €199?

Functionally, both do the same thing. But how can you justify spending three times as much for a name? Quite easily, actually. Because the cheap machine cuts corners in the design, it will die on you after a couple of years. A robust design with higher quality materials drastically prolongs the lifespan of the product. An investigation by UNETO-VNI, the Dutch professional technician organization, found that an appliance that costs €199 has an expected lifespan of two years, while one that costs €600 lasts for seven years.

There are a lot of ways for producers to cut costs. From my experience running iFixit, the biggest online repair community, I see a lot of design shortcuts that lead to premature failure.

A common approach to cost reduction involves welding the main washing machine drum bearing into the steel frame. A friend of mine, Cris Stephenson, runs a large appliance repairer based in the UK. He’s beyond frustrated with the low-cost design trend.

“This means the most common failure on a washing machine is impossible to repair. So for the sake of an £8 bearing the whole machine needs to be scrapped.”

Environcom in the UK helps end planned obsolescenceIncentivizing Longer Lasting Products

Experts agree that if we want to improve our resource efficiency, we’re going to need longer lasting products. Eighty percent of the environmental impacts of products are determined at design stage. It’s just flat out wasteful to dispose of a 50 kilogram washing machine because a 50 gram bearing failed. The best manufacturers design their products so that wear items are easily replaced, provide service information to consumers, and sell repair parts.

The proposed rules would standardize these best practices. One common-sense, low-cost idea asks manufacturers to share the service manual for their products. That will be easy for established brands like Miele who design their products from the ground up to be repaired, but may be more of a burden for Chinese manufacturers that have never planned for service. And that’s precisely the point, says Fayole. “We need to create incentives for durable products.”

The Internet of Insecure Things

But higher quality products won’t solve all our problems. Examine a simple refrigerator—as electronics make products more complex, new failure modes are arising. In the last few years, refrigerators have packed in more and more functionality, from internal cameras to Alexa integration. Samsung’s smart refrigerators even have a calendar feature—or did, until a Google API update broke it. Google’s forums are full of people asking for how to disable their smart functionality.

Heck, LG doesn’t even design refrigerators without WiFi anymore. That sounds innovative, but what it really means is that a new wave of security vulnerabilities is moving into our homes. Just last year, millions of LG devices were impacted by a major flaw disturbingly dubbed ‘HomeHack.’ Now, LG’s website helpfully instructs you to check for security updates to your vacuums, washing machines, and refrigerators ‘every other month.’ Eesh.

In addition to introducing vulnerabilities, an unexpected side effect of this ‘modernization’ is that home appliance repair technicians are being left in the cold. Without access to proprietary diagnostic software to read error codes, local repair shops have no way to repair the latest devices.

A Modest Proposal for an Off Switch

Fortunately, the proposed ecodesign rules fix this problem too. Modern appliances need an internet off switch, and with access to factory diagnostic software, consumers and repair technicians will be able to secure these appliances.

Home appliances have become undependable buckets of bolts running outdated linux distros guaranteeing our home networks have security holes big enough you could drive a truck through them. Providing software diagnostics to consumers and local technicians will at least give them a fighting chance to secure their network.

Speak up for Ecodesign

Politicians looking for opportunities to create jobs should also consider pushing for the ecodesign measures. While products are generally manufactured outside of Europe, they are not sent around the globe for repair. People want their broken stuff fixed close to them—and need local repairers to help. By 2050, policies to stimulate repair could lead to the creation of up to 45% new European repair jobs.

Environcom is a perfectly example. According to Stephenson, “Reusing an appliance is five times more profitable than recycling it, employs skilled staff and ensures quality, efficient machines are available to a much wider range of the population.”

The ecodesign update is a fantastic opportunity for the EU to set the bar for product quality. The measures would benefit the environment, reduce energy consumption, improve our product experience, reward producers of quality products and stimulate the economy all at once. More information on the impact of ecodesign regulations will be shared in a webinar organised by ECOS. 

Call upon the Commission to make history and to pass these measures without delay! We’ve set up petitions in Germany and the UK so you can make your voice heard.