From iPhones to printers: Are products designed to be obsolete?

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Dec 29 2017 07:47 AM | Updated as of Dec 29 2017 07:50 AM

Pyrolized Lithium-ion accus of laptops, smartphones and accu-powered craftsmen tools are pictured at the German recycling firm Accurec in Krefeld, Germany, November 16, 2017. Wolfgang Rattay, Reuters/FILE PHOTO

PARIS - From nylon stockings to smartphones and inkjet printers, the practice known as "planned obsolescence" -- designing products that wear out sooner than necessary -- has inspired controversy and debate for years.

CONTROVERSIAL CONCEPT

The term "planned obsolescence" dates back from 1932 in the United States during the economic crisis, when developer Bernard London defended legally imposing obsolescence on consumer goods in an effort to stimulate industry and growth.

Today, certain manufacturers have been accused of hastening the expiry of their products by programming their end of life or setting up quality defects of some components -- which would cause waste and unrecyclable waste build-up.

But some experts argue no scientific evidence proves the existence of such commercial practices.

In a report released in June in France, the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) did not make a determination on the existence of planned obsolescence, but rather questioned the notion of "perceived obsolescence".

The agency highlighted the "chosen" obsolescence of consumers who "say they are against planned obsolescence but replace phones that are still in working condition without causing them moral issues."

And a 2013 study by the University of Bonn in Germany with the Federal Environment Agency on a dozen electrical appliances (TVs, electric kettles, vacuum cleaners) could not prove a strategy of what it called "deliberate vulnerability".

CLASSIC EXAMPLES

- Some inkjet printers have been criticized for using techniques that limit operations after a certain number of impressions, which forces users to change cartridges before they are empty.

On Thursday, French prosecutors launched a probe into Japanese printer maker Epson -- brought by the association Stop Planned Obsolescence (Hop or Halte a l' Obsolescence Programmee) -- for alleged planned obsolescence and deception in its products.

- Apple admitted before Christmas that it deliberately slowed down the performance of older iPhones as a way to "prolong the life of their devices." The confession brought on legal proceedings in the United States and Israel, and the filing of a complaint in Paris by Hop.

The US tech giant is regularly attacked by consumer groups and environmentalists for products deemed too difficult to disassemble and repair.

In 2005, Apple agreed to pay up to $100 million (83 million euros) to settle lawsuits by users of the iPod music player over battery life.

- Nylon stockings: to reduce the durability of stockings placed on the market in the 1940s, which were much less fragile than older silk models, US manufacturer DuPont apparently amended the nylon stockings' original formula to generate more sales.

- Incandescent bulbs: in 1925, the Phoebus cartel of the world's major light bulb manufacturers was believed to have imposed a lifetime cycle on light bulbs to not exceed 1,000 hours.

LEGISLATIVE RESPONSES

The European Parliament has asked the European Commission to specifically legislate over planned obsolescence, through the mid-July plenary vote of a non-binding resolution.

France is an exception, as it passed landmark legislation in summer 2015 which made the practice illegal and -- in theory -- obliged retailers to say whether replacement parts were available.

The law stipulates that a company found to be deliberately shortening the life of its products can be fined up to five percent of its annual sales while executives can face up to two years in jail. 

The Epson case -- if the initial legal inquiry finds enough evidence for a trial -- could lead to the first prosecution for the crime, which some lawyers have warned will be difficult to prove in court.

Apple could also be liable for a fine in line with the value of all of its iPhone sales in France since August 2015.


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