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.

 
 
 
 

Academics are mapping the legacy of slavery in Britain’s cities

A detail of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership map showing central Bristol. Image: LBS/UCL.

For 125 years, a statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston stood in the centre of Bristol, ostensibly to commemorate the philanthropy he’d used his blood money to fund. Then, on 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled it down and threw it into the harbour

The incident has served to shine a light on the benefits Bristol and other British cities reaped from the Atlantic slave trade. Grand houses and public buildings in London, Liverpool, Glasgow and beyond were also funded by the profits made from ferrying enslaved Africans across the ocean. But because the horrors of that trade happened elsewhere, the role it played in building modern Britain is not something we tend to discuss.

Now a team at University College London is trying to change that. The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership project is mapping every British address linked to a slave-owner. In all, its database contains 5,229 addresses, linked to 5,586 individuals (some addresses are linked to more than one slave owner; some slave owners had more than one home). 

The map is not exact. Streets have often been renumbered; for some individuals, only a city is known, not necessarily an address; and at time of writing, only around 60% of known addresses (3,294 out of 5,229) have been added to the map. But by showing how many addresses it has recorded in each area, it gives some sense of which bits of the UK benefited most from the slave trade; the blue pins, meanwhile, reflect individual addresses, which you can click for more details.

The map shows, for example, that although it’s Glasgow that’s been noisily grappling with this history of late, there were probably actually more slave owners in neighbouring Edinburgh, the centre of Scottish political and financial power.

Liverpool, as an Atlantic port, benefited far more from the trade than any other northern English city.

But the numbers were higher in Bristol and Bath; and much, much higher in and around London.

 

Other major UK cities – Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – barely appear. Which is not to say they didn’t also benefit from the Triangular Trade (with its iron and weaponry industries, Professor David Dabydeen of Warwick University said in 2007, “Birmingham armed the slave trade”) – merely that they benefited in a less direct way.

The LBS map, researcher Rachel Lang explained via email, is “a never-ending task – we’re always adding new people to the database and finding out more about them”. Nonetheless, “The map shows broadly what we expected to find... We haven’t focused on specific areas of Britain so I think the addresses we’ve mapped so far are broadly representative.” 

The large number in London, she says, reflect its importance as a financial centre. Where more specific addresses are available, “you can see patterns that reflect the broader social geography”. The high numbers of slave-owners in Bloomsbury, for example, reflects merchants’ desire for property convenient to the City of London in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the district was being developed. Meanwhile, “there are widows and spinsters with slave property living in suburbs and outlying villages such as Chelsea and Hampstead. Country villas surround London.” 


“What we perhaps didn’t expect to see was that no areas are entirely without slave owners,” Lang adds. “They are everywhere from the Orkney Islands to Penzance. It also revealed clusters in unexpected places – around Inverness and Cromarty, for example, and the Isle of Wight.” No area of Britain was entirely free of links to the slave trade.

 You can explore the map here.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

All images courtesy of LBS/UCL