This study was prepared for the European Parliament’s Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO). The study is available on the European Parliament’s webpage (here). Copyright remains with the European Parliament at all times
General considerations as regards product longevity
We tend to assume that longer product lifetimes are better, but even in terms solely of environmental goals, this is not always the case. Product-specific and sector-specific impacts across the production, usage and end of life phases need to be considered, and there are often trade-offs between these.
Notably, prolonging the life of a product type that is in the middle of substantial improvement in its environmental efficiency may delay the take-up of these improved products, sometimes with negative environmental impact that can outweigh the gains from producing and disposing of smaller quantities.
Even for the same product, different approaches may be needed over time in response to market evolution and technological evolution.
This implies that a one-size-fits-all horizontal approach to product lifetime is unlikely to be appropriate – different approaches are suitable to different products at different times.
Consumer welcome longer product lifetimes for some products, but in other cases are worried about high costs of acquiring or maintaining products with long lifetimes, or are worried about being locked in to obsolescent products.
There are gaps in the reliable information available to consumers about competing products when it comes to service records, product lifetimes and Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). It is challenging to provide TCO data, and we know of no good existing solution.
The literature on planned obsolescence focuses on suppliers who intentionally supply products with a short lifetime in order to sell replacements to consumers. The degree to which this is actually the case is largely unknown – surprisingly little is concretely known about producer preferences in terms of product lifetime. Whether economic incentives favour short product lifetimes might depend on the degree of global competition to which the product is subject. In any case, producer preferences about product lifetime may reflect legitimate trade-offs, just as is the case with consumer preferences.
Irrespective of whether producers intentionally reduce the lifetime of their products, it is likely that at least some producers place too little emphasis on long product lifetimes.
There are suggestions in the literature that product lifetimes are becoming shorter. Hard data is available but limited and suggests that, if anything, the opposite was the case in the United States (US) in the second half of the Twentieth Century: the average lifetime of durable household goods and of automobiles got substantially longer over time, not shorter. How this has evolved over the past twenty years, however, is hard to say.