30 June 2017
Pressure on European Authorities over Product Durability and Reparability
On 25 May 2017, the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) argued for the EU to improve product durability by setting minimum standards for product lifespans, starting with components. The agency has pointed out that the framework for such measures already exists within the EU’s Ecodesign Directive of 2009, which, although so far used for the promotion of energy efficiency, could also be used for the promotion of resource efficiency.
Hong Kong traders will want to note how this new application may affect their business practices and exports to the EU. The UBA points out, for instance, that the Ecodesign law could be used to require manufacturers to disclose the availability of spare parts and services, so as to better inform customers of the reparability of products before purchase. Other possibilities raised by the UBA include requiring manufacturers to sell their products with a guaranteed lifespan and to encourage EU governments to work together with a view to collectively lowering VAT on repair services.
This is not the first call for a more holistic use of the Ecodesign Directive, which has already been implemented in all Member States. Indeed, in December 2015, the Commission itself committed to the inclusion of durability, reparability, and recyclability in future measures.
The debate was reinvigorated on 28 May 2017, when the Internal Market and Consumer Protection Committee of the European Parliament passed a resolution suggesting a “voluntary European label” to the European Commission, which would inform citizens of durability, ecological, and reparability factors relevant to their purchases.
The parliamentary resolution also suggests the encouragement of technical, safety, and software measures taken by manufacturers to ensure that only approved bodies are able to conduct product repairs. This would provide consumers with more opportunities to engage independent repairers. In conjunction, the committee agreed that parts essential to the functioning of a product should be both replaceable and reparable. This aligns with the UBA’s suggested approach of initiating regulatory measures from the component level up. The committee specified that such parts should be available “at a price commensurate to the nature and life-time of the product”.
The parliamentary committee furthermore suggested an EU-wide definition of “planned obsolescence” for both physical goods and software. This recommendation is likely to meet challenges in the July plenary session of the European Parliament. Research conducted by the UBA showed a marked increase in consumers returning defective products to manufacturers, from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in in 2013, as well as a general shortening of product lifespans.
The German researchers were unable, however, to find clear evidence of ‘planned obsolescence’ in market products. Evidentiary difficulties and issues of definition will likely be raised in continued debate over the resolution.
Moreover, the voluntary nature of much of the parliamentary committee’s resolution has faced criticism. The director of the sustainability and safety department at the European Consumer Organisation (ECO) has said: “If the EU is serious about making the economy actually circular, measures to make products last longer should be mandatory, not just voluntary”. In a similar vein, a spokesperson for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) has said the resolution “lacks clear policy actions to address the premature obsolescence of products”. Hong Kong companies should continue to monitor this resolution as it evolves in order to assess its impact on their EU interests and products.
Despite these tensions over voluntary and mandatory approaches, public appetite for improved product durability and reparability is well documented. A 2014 Eurobarometer survey, for instance, found that 77% of EU citizens would prefer the repair of goods over the purchase of new goods if it weren’t for concerns relating to the cost and quality of repair services. Hong Kong traders may want to consider this trend moving forward in adapting their EU-oriented products, regardless of the final form of the current proposal.
The resolution was approved by the Parliamentary Committee with 34 votes in favour, none against, and one abstention. In July 2017, the resolution will be presented for a full Parliamentary vote.