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.

 
 
 
 

“Every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap”: on the rise of the chain conffeeshop as public space

Mmmm caffeine. Image: Getty.

If you visit Granary Square in Kings Cross or the more recent neighbouring development, Coal Drops Yard, you will find all the makings of a public space: office-workers munching on their lunch-break sandwiches, exuberant toddlers dancing in fountains and the expected spread of tourists.

But the reality is positively Truman Show-esque. These are just a couple examples of privately owned public spaces, or “POPS”,  which – in spite of their deceptively endearing name – are insidiously changing our city’s landscape right beneath us.

The fear is that it is often difficult to know when you are in one, and what that means for your rights. But as well as those places the private sector pretends to be public space, the inverse is equally common, and somewhat less discussed. Often citizens, use clearly private amenities like they are public. And this is never more prevalent than in the case of big-chain coffeeshops.

It goes without saying that London is expensive: often it feels like every twitch, breath or thought necessitates a contactless tap. This is where Starbucks, Pret and Costa come in. Many of us find an alternative in freeloading off their services: a place to sit, free wifi when your data is low, or an easily accessible toilet when you are about in the city. It feels like a passive-aggressive middle-finger to the hole in my pocket, only made possible by the sheer size of these companies, which allows us to go about unnoticed. Like a feature on a trail map, it’s not just that they function as public spaces, but are almost universally recognised as such, peppering our cityscapes like churches or parks.

Shouldn’t these services really be provided by the council, you may cry? Well ideally, yes – but also no, as they are not under legal obligation to do so and in an era of austerity politics, what do you really expect? UK-wide, there has been a 13 per cent drop in the number of public toilets between 2010 and 2018; the London boroughs of Wandsworth and Bromley no longer offer any public conveniences.  


For the vast majority of us, though, this will be at most a nuisance, as it is not so much a matter of if but rather when we will have access to the amenities we need. Architectural historian Ian Borden has made the point that we are free citizens in so far as we shop or work. Call it urban hell or retail heaven, but the fact is that most of us do regularly both of these things, and will cope without public spaces on a day to day. But what about those people who don’t?

It is worth asking exactly what public spaces are meant to be. Supposedly they are inclusive areas that are free and accessible to all. They should be a place you want to be, when you have nowhere else to be. A space for relaxation, to build a community or even to be alone.

So, there's an issue: it's that big-chain cafes rarely meet this criterion. Their recent implementation of codes on bathroom doors is a gentle reminder that not all are welcome, only those that can pay or at least, look as if they could. Employees are then given the power to decide who can freeload and who to turn away. 

This is all too familiar, akin to the hostile architecture implemented in many of our London boroughs. From armrests on benches to spikes on windowsills, a message is sent that you are welcome, just so long as you don’t need to be there. This amounts to nothing less than social exclusion and segregation, and it is homeless people that end up caught in this crossfire.

Between the ‘POPS’ and the coffee shops, we are squeezed further by an ever-growing private sector and a public sector in decline. Gentrification is not just about flat-whites, elaborate facial hair and fixed-gear bikes: it’s also about privatisation and monopolies. Just because something swims like a duck and quacks like a duck that doesn’t mean it is a duck. The same can be said of our public spaces.