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.