Strengthening local business structures by improving durability and reparability of products

15. January 1925 was a sad day in the history of consumer and environmental protection. On that day, the biggest light bulb manufacturers sat together and founded what later became known as the “Phoebus Cartel”. They decided to design bulbs in a way that limit the lifespan of bulbs to 1,000 hours – far below what was technically possible – to boost the sale of their products.

The Phoebus Cartel case is a classic example of planned obsolescence, a practice that is widely common today but often hard to prove. Product engineers and designers have the freedom and the incentives to build washing machines with little plastic mountings that break after two hundred wash cycles or printers with tubes that become clogged after three years.

Unfortunately for the consumer and the environment, these practices often make economic sense for individual companies. The cheaper the parts, the shorter the lifespan, and the faster comes the new demand.

But for our economy as a whole, these practices are nothing more than inefficiency and a waste of resources, while the public and the environment bear the costs.

Almost all the environmental impacts of products are determined at the design phase, and we let the designers decide whether products are repairable and durable or not. This has to change.

First, we must align the interests and incentives of companies with those of society and the environment.

Businesses should not be allowed to benefit or gain a competitive advantage from cutting the turn short. This applies as much to the design of their products as much as it does to claiming that they are green, or sustainable, while their claims are impossible to verify.

We need a legislative framework that favors the development of genuinely long-lasting, reusable, and recyclable products, and services that support them. This is why early obsolescence, poorly performing products and greenwashing must be banned and durability promoted. There is no technology neutrality.

Second, we need to address the issue of availability and accessibility of spare parts and repairability information. A huge problem why many products become waste far too early is the lack of access to spare parts. Many companies refuse to provide them or ask for unreasonable prices, which induces consumers to buy a new product, instead of repairing the old one. In addition to spare parts, producers must be obliged to provide information on repairability. Here we need a reliable repairability score, to be developed within the Ecodesign framework, that should also contain information on availability of spare parts.

Thirdly, we must provide the repair and refurbishment sector with legal certainty and better information. Independent repairers face lawsuits because they are sometimes seen as manufacturers but lack the ability to provide all the information about the product they sell. For the circular economy to work, and for the repairing sector to flourish, there has to be a business case. For this, repair companies need legal certainty and better information.

Hence, the digital product passport – still in its infancy – is a critical piece in the puzzle, bridging the gap between the digital and the green transitions. We must ensure companies disclose reliable information about their products and operations, throughout the value chain, all the way down to the sources and qualities of their raw materials, so that these products and materials can be kept in circulation in full transparency as they go through refurbishment, repair, reuse and recycling.

We should stop thinking of repairers as cute little micro businesses and start recognizing them as proper companies, with multi-billion prospects for business right here in continental Europe.

As such, together with consumers, they have the power to break the monopolies of large multinational corporations, enhancing the competitiveness of the single market and supporting local value creation for the benefit of communities and the environment.

But we can also be confident. New rules create new business models and thereby new front-runners. Most of the paper in the world comes from paper machines from a company in southern Germany. But this company does not produce new paper machines anymore. Why? Because the entire business model rests now on maintaining the existing machines that simply just won’t break. Quality over quantity – this must be the leading principle for our economy.

The climate and biodiversity crisis is here and now. But we cannot only think of emissions reduction and saving the forests, without at the same time reducing dramatically our consumption and extraction of resources. Circular economy is what is missing to make ends meet within the planetary boundaries. We know what must be done to make it happen. And the time to act is now.