One of the big obstacles to a sustainable future is the culture of disposability. For citizens of consumer societies, it is perfectly normal to ‘consume’ things. We use them, and when they are damaged or obsolete, or even if we’re just bored with them, they are thrown away. The result is mountains of discarded clothes, electronics and other items.
In a circular economy, resources are stewarded by keeping them in rotation rather than throwing them away. There are different ways to do that. One is to make things recyclable. You can also make them durable, so that they last longer in the first place. And you can make things easy to repair.
France has emerged as a leader on this latter strategy. In 2015 it introduced a law that banned ‘planned obsolescence’, which they defined as using deliberate techniques to limit the life of a product. (We’ve all experienced it – a new phone is fine for a year, and then the battery performance and speed go off a cliff, enticing you into buying a new one.)
This year France has introduced a new measure to encourage a culture of repair. New smartphones, laptops, TVs, washing machines, and lawnmowers will be assessed on how repairable they are, and the score will be displayed at the point of sale from 2022. If you’re in the market for a new device, the score out of ten will tell you how easy it will be to get it fixed.
The repairability index considers several different factors, such as the availability of repair manuals, how easy it is to take the device apart, and whether you can get spare parts. The plan is to expand on this by 2024 and include a durability rating alongside repairability.
All of this provides information to customers, so it’s a market driven initiative. People will be free to buy the shoddy throwaway versions if they want to, but at least they know what they’re getting. The biggest frustration is only finding out how repairable a product is when it goes wrong.
Hopefully, more people will begin to factor repairability into their shopping decisions, once it’s easier to do. It will also encourage the industry to up their game. Retailers that trade on quality won’t want to stock low-scoring products, and manufacturers will find them harder to sell.
Long term, companies will need to start considering durability and repairability as part of their design process. If they want a decent rating and a reputation for quality, they’ll need to provide manuals and invest in a spare parts network.
This investment in repair, across the whole country, will also create new jobs and new businesses in repair, new specialisms and training programmes.
It’s a little thing, a label on a product, but it could prove quite powerful. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on it. It will be interesting to see if industry rolls with it or fights it, and whether consumers actually want to support repairability. I hope the British government will be following it too.