In the old days, things were repaired, not thrown out. Soon, when buying a washing machine for example, we will know not just how energy-saving it is, but also to what extent it is repairable and durable. At least in France. An interview with Adèle Chasson from the Stop Planned Obsolescence (HOP; Halte à L’Obsolescence Programmée) NGO.
Urszula Kaczorowska: Are you a crazy activist?
Adèle Chasson: No. Absolutely not.
But your organization wants to imprison manufacturers who deliberately design their products with the aim of limiting their lifespan. People found guilty of planned obsolescence can end up behind bars for two years and the company can face fines of 5% of annual revenues.
At first sight, it might sound very radical. In reality, on the one hand we are focused on condemning the dishonest business practices that deliberately put products onto the market, which break quickly so that consumers are encouraged to replace them. On the other hand, we promote businesses that do the exact opposite: they want their products to have a long lifespan.
Employees from the NGO where you work worked with politicians to develop a law that gives prison sentences for such dishonest design. It was a success – the bill was passed. Why did you decide to go for such powerful measures?
We have known about planned obsolescence for a very long time. In the US, this term was used for the first time back in 1954 in a positive way, to stimulate growth and production. The problem was that none of the earlier initiatives to fight these practices brought any results. Since we’ve had a separate law, it has been easier for us to raise awareness among consumers about how much is down to them (e.g. buying durable products, maintaining and repairing them, applying guarantees…). Industry itself is becoming more aware and is looking for new solutions. Part of our work is also to lobby. We want products to be longer lasting and repairable through making spare parts available, among other things. From January next year, some products on sale in France will carry information about their level of ‘repairability’.
What do you care about most of all as an NGO?
About creating a community of consumers who, through their actions, will influence both politicians and business. We are active on various fronts, informing and raising awareness. We organize many conferences and encourage the media to intervene. We conduct our own investigations, putting specific products under the microscope. We have already researched printers, tights, and washing machines. We rank them. Recently we launched a website (www.produitsdurables.fr) with advice on how to repair everyday products and what to look for if you have to buy new equipment. We also include statistics about products that break down while the guarantee is still valid and that are most often the subject of complaint. At the EU level, we want to persuade decision-makers to introduce mandatory labelling for product durability; something along the lines of the energy-saving labelling.
The ‘visual ageing of a product’ is an interesting category.
This is the most difficult area. Young people in particular like to buy new things not because the old one has broken, but because they don’t like them anymore. We organize campaigns to help change the way they think. We show how the ‘visual ageing of a product’ is nothing more than a cunning marketing trick that we fall for. We don’t want to shame people, rather we want to show them how attractive it can be to hold off buying things they don’t need.
I imagine that it is difficult to persuade companies to create more durable products. It simply doesn’t pay.
We try to approach this in an intelligent manner. For example, we persuade the owners of transport companies to sign special agreements with tyre producers who define their durability in kilometres. Thanks to this, from the moment of purchase, the client knows how durable the product is. This is good for competition.
So you don’t just frighten them with the prospect of prison, but you also cooperate with businesses.
Absolutely. It is an important part of our activities. We want to show that, from the perspective of the business, a durable product can make economic sense in the long term.
I have to ask about tights. It’s not the fault of my fingernails that they ladder so quickly?
Tights are a classic example of planned obsolescence. In the 1930s, they were a symbol of durability because from the outset they were made from nylon. Our grandmothers would keep them in the cupboard for years. So what went wrong that now we can wear them only a few times because they ladder so quickly? We conducted some research, inviting 3000 ladies to participate. This is a solid sample size. It turns out that women who buy tights in France spend around €100 each year on them. A medium-sized company can produce one million pairs of tights a month. This is a serious business. And a serious problem at the same time, because they cannot be recycled.
Will you send some tights manufacturers to prison?
Probably that won’t happen, because we would have to know the detailed recipe for manufacturing the tights, and that is often a commercial secret. In spite of this, we are happy with the response to our report. The media made a real noise on the subject and we created a ranking for tights producers. As a result, the manufacturers themselves have started coming to us to ask what we think they could improve.
In the case of Epson and Apple, it’s too late for wise advice – the prosecutor’s office have initiated proceedings.
We proved that Epson’s printers send a message instructing users to change the ink while there is still 20-40% left in the cartridge. This is scandalous, because ink like this can cost more than €2000 per litre – €2300 on average). Apple, in turn, had installed software that is believed to have slowed down the operating system. The impatient owner of a telephone like this would rather buy a new one. These cases have been running for two years. We should hear the prosecutor’s decision soon.
A long time ago, Naomi Klein wrote an acclaimed, well-researched book, No Logo, in which she exposed the unethical practices of popular brands. The accusations were serious, but in spite of this these companies are still operating today and people willingly buy their products.
That book was published in 2000. Since then, the world has changed a lot. Chiefly the channels of communication. Today social media moves the crowds. I believe that we can change the way we think about consumption. Since it was possible to bring in the compulsory ‘Alcohol is dangerous for health’ warning on advertisements, maybe it is just a question of time before all manufacturers will have to include information about the percentage of their product that is eco-friendly.
Last year, MIPAI (the Mediterranean Intelligence & Public Affairs Institute) organized a trip using ‘clean’ methods of transport through France, Germany, Austria and Slovakia to Poland to hand over the presidency to Michał Kurtyka on behalf of young people, and to open the climate conference in Katowice. I was in that group. Before we left France, we visited several schools in the suburbs of Paris and I was astonished to discover that the level of knowledge about climate change among sixth-formers is very low. Why?
It’s true that the level of knowledge in schools varies a lot. We have already prepared a document in which we recommend politicians introduce additional subjects to the curriculum in the field of environmental protection. We also want them to reintroduce technical lessons in which children learn how to mend broken equipment and take good care of their products to avoid them breaking.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
Translated from the Polish by Annie Krasińska
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