How long should products last? Cheap goods that wear out quickly are clearly bad for the environment. However, sometimes even expensive products can have a short lifespan (companies like Apple have made a business out of releasing regular new versions of their shiny gadgets). Would it be better if warranties were a bit longer? Might that convince manufacturers to make products that really last?
EU law currently provides a minimum 2-year consumer guarantee for products (though some countries have longer national minimum guarantees). Is there a case for extending that to 5 years?
What do our readers think? We had a comment sent in from Ellen who thinks we should all be consuming less and recycle more. Would longer product guarantees help us achieve that goal?
To get a response, we spoke to Cosima Dannoritzer, a filmmaker and director of The Light Bulb Conspiracy, a documentary investigating companies who engineer their products to fail as part of planned obsolescence. What would she say about the idea of longer warranties?
I think longer warranty spans could really help to improve the quality of some products. But I’m not sure a blanket long warranty span which is the same for everything would really be the answer for all types of products.
For instance, I think it would work for potentially quite durable products, like chairs or tables or things like that. However, if you think of electronics, technology evolves and it evolves sometimes faster than every five years. At the same time, that’s the kind of industry where products have the biggest ‘ecological rucksack’, which includes all the toxic byproducts that are produced while the products are actually being manufactured, so we actually should really make the most of those products.
Therefore, I would actually suggest a sort of combined approach of longer warranty spans whilst also maximising repairability. We should make sure, for instance, that spare parts are available for longer; ensure that people feel they have a ‘right to repair’, and make sure you can actually open the product – because some warranties don’t even allow products to be opened or they will break the warranty. We want people to be allowed to open the product, and that’s also a design issue.
It would also be a good idea to promote, in some way, the notion that things can be updated, so if a computer is not totally up-to-date anymore after 2-3 years, then we can upgrade it without replacing it. And, last but not least, I think it’s important also to make sure that recycling is fully supported, that we can take products apart, that the different parts can go nicely into the system, that all types of materials can be separated nicely and the manuals for doing that are available.
Next up, we had a comment from Rumy, who is concerned that if products have longer lifespan then it might might “kill” industries. He asks, pointedly: “What are you planning to do with the jobless people as a result of this?”
To get a response to Rumy’s criticism, we spoke to Stefan Sipka, Environmental Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based EU policy think tank. What would he say about the economic cost of extended product guarantees? And, in addition, what would he say to the argument that shorter product lifespans might hurt innovation (especially when it comes to technology)?
Should all products have a five-years guarantee? Or are some products more suitable for extended guarantees? What might be the economic cost (and environmental benefit) of longer product lifespans? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!