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Electronic devices: planned obsolescence outlawed


Planned obsolescence is now a crime in France. Under the country’s energy transition law, which entered into force on 19 August 2015, a company director could face a two-year prison sentence and a fine of €300,000, rising to up to 5% of the annual revenue generated in France. With this legislation, the French government is aiming to protect consumers from the practices of some manufacturers, while reducing the volume of waste and promoting the preservation of natural resources.

Smart phones, printers, washing machines, refrigerators, MP3 players, computers, etc. What consumer has not been faced with the irreparable breakdown of a product, with a repair that is more expensive than replacement or even with updates that are impossible to implement? Condemned for many years by consumer associations, planned obsolescence has finally been recognised in law. Legislators define it as “the range of techniques used by a company responsible for placing a product on the market to deliberately reduce the lifespan of a product to increase replacement rates.” Although the legislation does not explicitly state as much, this also covers many practices undertaken by manufacturers identified in a 2013 report published by the European Consumer Centre . Firstly, there is “obsolescence by functional defect”, when a device stops working if a single component fails (e.g. the battery for a smart phone). Then, there is “obsolescence by incompatibility”, which is unique to IT (where the product is rendered useless due to incompatibility with subsequent versions or those of a competitor). Finally, there are other types of obsolescence, such as non-availability of spare parts or the inbuilt inability to continue using a product (usually a printer) beyond a certain timeframe. These are all reasons for which consumers can seek redress from the manufacturers, provided they can supply proof of the shortened lifespan of the product, something which some experts think will be difficult to do.


Phonebloks smartphone, a way to fight against planned obsolescence

In addition to the fact that it means consumers have to renew their equipment more frequently – French people now buy around six times more electrical and electronic equipment than they did at the beginning of the 1990s – planned obsolescence has a huge impact on the environment. It contributes to the ever-increasing volume of WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) in the world: 41.8 million tonnes in 2014 compared to 39.8 million tonnes in 2013 . Yet, according to the UN, less than a sixth of this waste is properly recycled, despite the fact that it contains many non-renewable resources including iron, copper, gold and rare metals.

Although France is at the forefront of the fight to eliminate planned obsolescence, it is not the only country to legislate on the subject. Belgium, the Netherlands and Finland have all taken steps in this direction. Europe, on the other hand, with several recent directives addressing planned obsolescence indirectly, seems determined to go further. Luxembourg, having recently taken up the Presidency of the European Union, includes the fight against planned obsolescence in the objectives listed in its roadmap. For its part, the European Economic and Social Committee has renewed its call for action on this issue for the European roadmap for 2016. Lastly, work on this matter is also ongoing in the European Parliament.

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