Sparks of a move to label products according to their expected life spans

It’s a situation many of us are familiar with. The milk turns sour, the yoghurt has curdled, and there are patches of water on the kitchen tiles. At fault in this tale is the refrigerator, which, barely three years old, has started to gurgle and appears to be reaching the end of its useful life. And like the DVD player, vacuum cleaner and coffee machine before it, the warranty has expired and the costs of repair far outweigh those of buying afresh. Yet according to a new survey, these failures might just be deliberate.

The study put before the German Bundestag by the Green Party claims to have found evidence of what it calls ‘planned obsolescence’ in a survey of over 2,000 products. Citing numerous examples, the report claims that manufacturers deliberately choose low quality components known to fail, or employ technical tricks to prevent their being repaired and encourage consumers to discard and buy new. This includes what in German are called Sollbruchstellen, ((A word otherwise used to describe the ability of certain animals to amputate a limb at a certain point as a self-defence mechanism.)) weak points designed to fail. In this way a device can be crippled by the failure of an otherwise fairly insignificant component. Another trick cited used the example of an electric toothbrush, where the regular rechargeable batteries were rendered inaccessible by design, meaning the appliance would need replacing as soon as the batteries failed. According to the report, the costs of this subterfuge weigh on the consumer, who spends billions of euros annually replacing broken goods, and the environment, through the tons of electronic goods which end up on the scrap heap because of miniscule failures.

This issue is by no means new. Suspicious consumers have long claimed that manufacturers deliberately produce goods with such built­in faults to ensure a steady stream of customers. Certain episodes from history highlight the possibilities. The infamous Phoebus cartel, formed by companies including Osram, Philips and General Electric in the 1920s to control the sale of lightbulbs, agreed to deliberately limit their lifespan to 1,000 hours, although technically much more durable bulbs had already been produced. A lightbulb in the Livermore Pleasanton Fire Department in California has been shining non­stop since 1902, and indeed has its own webcam feed. It is perhaps indicative of the lack of durability among electronic goods that the bulb has already outlived two webcams.

The hard evidence presented in this report is nevertheless relatively thin, and critics admit that much of the problem lies with the consumer buying cheap goods, made by necessity of lower quality components. Under German law it is up to consumers to provide evidence of deliberate mismanufacture, and producers can always call on the defence of regular wear and tear. Instead, Nicole Maisch, the Green Party’s consumer policy speaker, has demanded a swift overhaul of guarantee and warranty rights, a move which might promote a shift towards the production of more durable products. She also called for products to carry clear declarations of their reparability and expected lifespans. White goods in the EU are already distinguished by an energy efficiency label, rating them according to current standards: certain consumer groups would like to see similar gradings to highlight product durability. Whether this will stop teenagers needlessly throwing away their fully functioning mobile phones when the next generation smartphone comes on the market, however, is another question entirely.