Whatever the outcome of Brexit, the UK government should keep promoting ecodesign in household products

Leave supporter James Dyson demonstrates the effect of Brexit. Image: Getty.

If I had to guess how many people are frustrated by shoddy products that fail long before they should, I’d say it was somewhere around 100 per cent. Everyone I know has, at some stage, struggled with needlessly shattered smartphone screens, laptops that don’t last, taking priceless photos and files with them to an early grave, and washing machines that stop spinning after a few short years.

As it happens, I don’t have to guess how many Brits would support government action for better products. Cardiff University recently found out by surveying more than 1,000 people, and the figures are striking. Three quarters (75 per cent) want the government to make businesses produce repairable and recyclable products; 81 per cent think businesses should be required to provide repair, maintenance and disposal support; and a whopping 89 per cent want all packaging to be recyclable.

Setting standards for product design is an area where government regulation has been highly successful in the past. The EU’s Ecodesign Directive, which has so far focused on how much energy household appliances use, has pushed the most wasteful items off the market and raised the energy efficiency of many of the products we use daily. Fears that regulations would result in dimly lit rooms and weak hoovers proved unfounded, as they have instead led to design innovations.

Vacuum standards, for instance, saw energy consumption drop as expected, at the same time as average carpet dust pickup increased from 72 to 77 per cent. Consumers have felt these benefits in their pockets, too, with the average household able to save €500 a year (£444 at the time of writing) on energy bills because of these improvements, according to recent EU estimates.


There have long been calls for the logic of ecodesign standards to be extended to resource use as well, including criteria for durability, repairability and so on. This should be an easy win. In the case of washing machines, we know that, in the UK, they used to last ten years on average, but since 2000 their lifespan has dropped by more than a third. One of the causes is that many models now use unreplaceable bearings and paddles in the drum. That means that, if anything goes wrong, the whole drum has to be replaced at a cost of a couple hundred pounds. That’s far from an attractive option when you can buy a new washing machine for around the same price. But, if those paddles and bearings were replaceable, fixing the machine would cost less than £20, making repair a much more straightforward choice.  

Unfortunately, most businesses won’t implement these changes on their own. The government needs to step in to raise standards across the board. For washing machines, that would mean requiring components to last at least ten years and common points of failures – like bearings, paddles and doors – to be designed to be replaceable. It would consign shoddy appliances to the dustbin of history, be hugely popular and offer considerable environmental benefits along the way.

Research for the Centre for Industrial Energy, Materials & Products, published by Green Alliance, shows that improving the design of common household items in this way could reduce associated carbon emissions by nearly 20 per cent. If used in combination with other measures that extend product lifetimes and encourage greater sharing of products, that reduction could rise to 40 per cent. That’s a big impact.

To date, the UK government has resisted implementing such crowd pleasing measures. The European Parliament and Commission are looking to increase the ambition of the Ecodesign Directive, but progress has so far been slow. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, the UK government should keep working with the EU to raise product standards. It has the perfect opportunity to up the ambition and the pace of change in its new resources and waste strategy, which is due imminently. Putting an end to the frustrations caused by premature obsolescence and unnecessary packaging is something easily within its control. And it is a policy the vast majority of us would be united in supporting.

Libby Peake is a senior policy adviser on resource stewardship at Green Alliance, a charity and independent think tank.

 
 
 
 

The Fire Brigades Union’s statement on Theresa May’s resignation is completely damning

Grenfell Tower. Image: Getty.

Just after 10 this morning, Theresa May announced that she would resign as Britain’s prime minister on 7 June. A mere half an hour later, a statement from Royal Institute of British Architects president Ben Derbyshire arrived in my inbox with a ping:

“The news that Theresa May will step down as Prime Minister leaves the country in limbo while the clock ticks down to the latest deadline of 31 October. While much is uncertain, one thing remains clear – a no deal is no option for architecture or the wider construction sector. Whoever becomes the next Prime Minister must focus on taking the country forward with policies beyond Brexit that tackle the major challenges facing the country such as the housing crisis and climate change emergency.”

I was a bit baffled by this – why would the architecture profession try to get its thoughts into a political story? But then Merlin Fulcher of Architects Journal put me right:

Well you know construction is a larger contributor to GDP than financial services, and most of the work UK architects do is for export, and at least half of the largest practice (Foster + Partners) are EU, so there's a lot at stake

— Merlin Fulcher (@merlinfulcher) May 24, 2019

So, the thoughts of the RIBA president are an entirely legitimate thing to send to any construction sector-adjacent journalists who might be writing about today’s big news, and frankly I felt a little silly.

Someone else who should be feeling more than a little silly, though, is Theresa May herself. When listing her government’s achievements, such as they were, she included, setting up “the independent public inquiry into the tragedy at Grenfell Tower” – a fire in a West London public housing block in June 2017 – “to search for the truth, so nothing like it can ever happen again, and so the people who lost their lives that night are never forgotten”.

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, is having precisely none of this. Here’s his statement:

“Many of the underlying issues at Grenfell were due to unsafe conditions that had been allowed to fester under Tory governments and a council for which Theresa May bears ultimate responsibility. The inquiry she launched has kicked scrutiny of corporate and government interests into the long-grass, denying families and survivors justice, while allowing business as usual to continue for the wealthy. For the outgoing Prime Minister to suggest that her awful response to Grenfell is a proud part of her legacy is, frankly, disgraceful.”

A total of 72 people died in the Grenfell fire. At time of writing, nobody has been prosecuted.

Jonn Elledge is editor of CityMetric and the assistant editor of the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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