Product lifetimes summit in Nottingham
CIE-MAP Nottingham team lead international Product Lifetimes and the Environment (PLATE) event bringing together experts on repair, reuse and longevity of products.
An international group of academic, industry and NGO colleagues gathered at Nottingham Trent University on 6th December for the Product Lifetimes and the Environment (PLATE) Seminar. The group are leading the charge for reducing the waste and energy demand created by making unnecessary new products. They do this by encouraging the repairability and longevity of everything from electronics and white goods to clothes, cars and cooking equipment. The event follows on from the inaugural conference in 2015 and a future conference at Delft University is planned for 2017. With 70% of the CO2 emissions in manufacturing coming from the production process, the reduction of excessive manufacturing would make a sizeable dent in the efforts to meet greenhouse gas emissions targets.
A series of experts presented on research, policy and commercial developments in the field, broadly showing that there is a growing shift towards thinking about these issues as a means of reducing energy demand and waste without necessarily stifling commerce and innovation. For example, a greater emphasis on longer guarantees, service contracts and leasing of higher quality items could put the onus on manufacturers to address the throwaway culture and its environmental effects.
The European overview
The first speaker was Jonny Hazell, Senior Policy Adviser of the Green Alliance who spoke about European regulations relating to reuse and the potential impact of Brexit. On the whole there are encouraging signs that companies will be required to indicate the minimum lifecycle of appliances such as vacuum cleaners and fridges in order to give the consumer a better idea of value for money. Hazell pointed out that although there are media stereotypes about sections of society reacting adversely to EU directives about household appliances, these directives actually lead to higher quality and better value products.
Hazell also touched on the movement to return to repairing faulty products (either by yourself or via repair professionals) by making products more user serviceable, offering repair manuals and making genuine spare parts available. For example, on some fridges one of the first things to wear out are graphite brushes that help turn the motor. These could be easily replaced for minimal cost but are sometimes welded into the larger mechanism so that the whole motor needs to be replaced. Similarly, items where user repairs void the warranty could be seen as counterproductive to the reuse and repair movement (although it was pointed out that in some cases there are legitimate health and safety concerns with users servicing electrical equipment).
Reuse and repair driving innovation?
Next up was Dr Carlos Montalvo of TNO, the Dutch research organisation. Dr Montalvo focussed on innovation and the perceived conflict between reuse and repair and innovation. He talked about the way companies feel that they need to be constantly churning out new products to be competitive and their perception is that this is what customers want. However, there is a need to work out ways for reuse and repair culture to go hand in hand with innovation and economic growth. This could come from companies getting involved in eco-design in more creative ways. For example they could make products more durable and repairable and make up the loss of revenue in selling more, cheaper products from selling more long-term value for money, higher quality products and offering service contracts and leasing options.
Studies in obsolescence
Dr Ines Oehme of the German Federal Environment Agency (Umwelt Bundesamt) presented the results of a large German consumer study on obsolescence. Dr Oehme talked about the different kinds of obsolescence of unwanted products such as functional obsolescence (it no longer works), economic obsolescence (it is not worth the cost of repair) and psychological obsolescence (consumer wants a new item). Dr Oeohme research showed that many products that were still within their lifespan were thrown away due to the need for minor repairs or that the consumer wanted to upgrade.
Once in a lifetime products
Finally, Tara Button, CEO of BuyMeOnce.com spoke of her vision for encouraging people to buy products (whether it be cookware, shoes, socks or toys for example) that are intended to last a lifetime. Inspired initially by Le Creuset kitchenware’s model of products that are intended to last forever, Button set up a website dedicated to highlighting similar types of products in a range of categories. The idea has caught on in the UK, USA and Canada especially from which the site has received over 1.5m visits in 18 months. Interestingly, the site does not list electronic equipment as there are no electrical products that meet their mantra of durability, sustainable production, usefulness, excellent reviews and fixability /aftercare.
BuyMeOnce also intends to campaign for shop-sold products to have stickers on them indicating their projected lifespan so that customers can make more informed choices about the trade-off between cost and longevity. For example, a washing machine that costs £300 but will stop working after 3 years is ultimately more expensive than one which costs £500 but lasts 10 years. This kind of shift in consumer behaviour could also bring the leasing, service agreement type arrangements mentioned above to the fore. Button argued that if companies had to put their sustainability and longevity credentials on their products in-store, it could lead to the whole manufacturing process taking up a more sustainable approach. The idea of challenging ideas that it was socially prestigious to have the ‘latest products’ as opposed to buying high-quality, lasting products was also raised as a key area of interest.
Overall, the event presented a very positive view of a world with less new products rolling off the conveyor belt and more high-quality, value for money items taking a less disastrous toll on the environment.
Read more on the PLATE website
Read Changing Channels – The Case for Reuse and Repair blog from NTU’s Dr Christine Cole.