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.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.