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How long are YOUR electronic devices programed to last? Proposed “durability” labels may help you make greener choices

If you ask Brune Poirson, the discerning French consumer should know exactly how long a product is expected to last. According to a Deutsche Welle article, he’s proposing for the adoption of a labeling system that will rate a product on its durability, ability to be recycled, and ecological footprint.

The Secretary of State to France’s ecology minister has suggested rating products according to ease of repair, durability, sustainability, and other factors pertaining to effective lifespan. Each label would have a QR code that potential buyers could scan with their smart phones in order to find out its score.

Poirson expects the new system to encourage responsible consumers to choose longer-lasting and recyclable products, thereby saving them money and protecting the environment at the same time. (Related: Expert creates new prototype to restore old lithium batteries to 95% of original capacity, drawing interest from major tech companies.)

This wasn’t the first time a government attempted to rate products by means of their durability. Both France and Germany attempted to pass similar legislation back in 2015, but their efforts petered out because the proposed ratings systems proved to be too cumbersome.

Still, the proposal might prove popular among people who have been wondering why their appliances and electronics keeping breaking down so quickly. There’s a general suspicion that manufacturers are deliberately designing products with short lifespans that leave consumers with no choice but to buy replacements, a practice called “planned obsolescence.”

Survey reveals consumers rank durability second to price

Germany’s Blue Angel is the oldest voluntary certification scheme for environmentally-friendly products. The European Union‘s Ecolabel scheme is a more recent example that has been adopted across the continent. However, neither scheme specifically covered the durability and lifespan of a product.

To that end, Alanus University in Germany researched consumer reaction to the possible introduction of a product lifetime label. They contracted an independent company to ask consumers about the factors that guided their purchases. Said agency did not describe the hypothetical label as a full guarantee. Instead, they framed it as an indication of the product’s predicted lifetime.

The research study found that the product lifetime label earned a 31 percent score as the biggest factor in a purchase decision. It ranked slightly behind price at 33 percent.  In comparison, the already prevalent “energy efficiency” label received less than half the score of the product lifetime label.

According to Alanus University researcher Kathleen Jacobs, a mix of sustainable values and self-beneficial reasons (i.e. saving money) drove the preference for durability. She reported that only a few participants chose the product lifetime label based on “environmental concern” alone. It would be important to find out just how much money consumers are willing to shell out for the information provided by such a label, she said.

“The market for a product lifetime label is bigger, because it attracts not only those who want to help the environment,” said Jacobs.

According to a 2017 study by the European Economic and Social Committee, a “durability” label would boost the sales of suitcases, printers, and smartphones.

Legal and funding challenges

Poirson’s labeling scheme would require testing a product’s durability. Such tests are expensive, and consumers usually end up footing the bill. For example, the E.U. recently raised the minimum lifetime required for lightbulbs. The ensuing rounds of tests raised the product cost.

Furthermore, any labeling scheme must be voluntary in nature. E.U. law forbids member nations from coming up with a required national label because it would distort the single market.

Conversely, the E.U. could be the strongest supporter of the scheme. It already enjoys successful eco-labels and energy efficiency labels, so it could adopt the labeling scheme for all member nations.

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