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French government tackles planned obsolescence

Planned obsolescence occurs when a product is designed with the intention of it breaking, failing or becoming unfashionable after a predetermined period. A new French government decree (2014-1482), which came into force in March 2015, is aimed at fighting this practice in the appliances industry. This is part of a larger movement against planned and built in obsolescence across the European Union.

If you have ever owned a product that was easier to replace than repair, then you have experienced planned obsolescence first hand. It is defined in the French Act on Energy Transition as any scheme through which a product has 'its life intentionally reduced from its conception, limiting its usage period for reasons of economic model'.

Pros and cons

There are arguments for and against planned obsolescence. The 'for' camp argues that rapid change on the market leads to faster innovation, new technology and more competitiveness, which benefits everyone, including end buyers. Consumers tend to lean towards the 'against' camp, highlighting the increased waste, energy consumption, as well as financial resources involved in continually buying new products to replace their old, irreparable ones.

The EU's Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive stipulates minimum requirements and gives Member States the freedom to enforce stricter conditions. It is the overall desire to increase the durability of products, while having more transparency about the life span of products and availability of spare parts, which led to this new legislation in France, closely following the regulations contained in Article 6 of the French Consumers' Law (published March 2014).

The decree is only applicable in France, to French manufacturers, who will now be required to tell consumers how long their appliances are intended to last. If they want to avoid a potential fine of €15,000, manufacturers must also notify buyers how long spare parts will be available for each product, after its release date. And that's not all – from 2016, manufacturers will be required to repair or replace, free of charge, any defective product within two years from its original purchase date. This will effectively create a mandatory two year warranty for white goods.

A broader move

The French decree is part of a wider movement against planned and built in obsolescence across the EU. The Consultative Commission on Industrial Change (CCMI) is developing a project, initiated by the European Economic and Social Committee, to create an action plan for more sustainable consumption patterns. This is coupled with a desire to establish product labeling best practices, which would include details about product durability and expected lifetime.

At the core of this project is the CCMI opinion 'CCMI/112 towards more sustainable consumption: industrial product lifetimes and restoring trust through consumer information', adopted on 17 October 2013, and which is proposing a total ban on planned obsolescence.

Legislation against obsolescence is not enough on its own; it requires a body that could assist with its implementation and enforcement. The Component Obsolescence Group (COG) established the International Institute of Obsolescence Management (IIOM) in January 2015. The IIOM aims to expand its reach to a wider range of industries involving materials, software, mechanical, electrical, and electronics components and to provide training to practitioners in obsolescence management.

All of these legal documents and actions represent important steps forward towards protecting EU consumers by offering them more details about a product's durability and life span. In turn, this will help them make more informed and sustainable buying decisions.

Beyond planned obsolescence

A fast product turnover on the market is a well known way to boost the economy and encourage growth. But, in the long term, it might generate a purchasing frenzy that induces tension in consumer's budgets and the frustration of not being able to acquire the latest devices. It also accelerates the depletion of natural resources and increases the pressure on the environment.

In order to identify a more sustainable approach, several companies have started working on new business models that go beyond planned obsolescence. Strategies based on functionality or circular economy are emerging and proving successful in their specific market: vehicles, stamping machines and printers are three areas demonstrating the feasibility of these different approaches.

The challenge for the manufacturers is to generate trust in their products and system in the long term.

Author profile:

Jean-Baptiste Molet is manager, Supply Chain Assessments and Solutions, with SGS France.

Jean-Baptiste Molet

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Of course, if white goods are only supplied as an operating lease, where the machine builder directly or indirectly retains ownership of the product, and is contracted to achieve specific levels of performance, such as reliability, the issue of obsolescence becomes irrelevant.

Posted by: Ron Giuntini, 19/08/2015

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