Slowing down and lengthening life

Do things last as long as they used to? Tim Cooper investigates throwaway culture and how we can encourage longevity.

There appears to be a widespread consensus that many consumer goods do not last as long as in the past. Sofas that would once have been regarded as long term investments. Kitchen appliances that are designed in such a way as to be irreparable. Consumer electronics that are updated annually to tempt people to replace their possessions more frequently.  Above all, ‘fast fashion’ that leads to cheap garments being discarded after a handful of uses.

Fingers are often pointed at companies, and yet consumers acquiesce. It is quite possible to purchase products that are designed to be durable.  But high quality products tend to be more expensive and most consumers prefer to spend less and use the savings to purchase additional goods or services.

Environmentalists have long expressed concern about our throwaway culture. Until recently their voices were largely ignored. In recent years, however, people have begun to respond.

The starting point for action was single use packaging, exemplified by bans on the distribution by retailers of free plastic carrier bags. Then, as public concern at the impact of plastic waste grew, initiatives to address other single use items, such as coffee cups, took off.

Yet these responses address only one small aspect of our unsustainable economy. It is not just single use items that are problematic; many of the consumer goods that we purchase have unduly short lifetimes.

A more radical response is now emerging through the idea of a circular economy, in which the maximum value is extracted from consumer goods by prolonging their lifetimes and, ultimately, recycling their constituent materials. The concept has gained momentum through the European Commission’s Action Plan for the Circular Economy, updated in March 2020, which promises consumers ‘trustworthy and relevant information on products at the point of sale, including on their lifespan  and on the availability of repair services, spare parts and repair manuals.’

Certain countries have taken a lead. In France, planned obsolescence – techniques through which a product has its life intentionally reduced by a producer in order to increase its replacement rate – is now an offence punishable by fines or imprisonment. In Sweden, VAT on the repair of goods such as bicycles and clothes has been reduced and an income tax credit is payable for the repair of certain household appliances.

Meanwhile, academics are generating the knowledge needed for the necessary transition; over 200 gathered together at last year’s PLATE (Product Lifetimes and the Environment) conference in Berlin.

From a Christian perspective, I have argued elsewhere that we have a role to play in creating an economy that no longer fuels over-consumption. The need for restraint in consumption is apparent throughout the Bible, from the warning in the Ten Commandments not to covet other people’s possessions to Jesus’s teaching that we should be detached from our possessions – even to sell them – and Paul’s suggestion to Timothy that we should be content with essentials of life: food and clothing.

What is the way forward? We can begin by committing ourselves to follow the message of an unlikely ‘prophet’, fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, who in recent years has proclaimed: ‘Buy less, choose well, make it last.’ But promoting change in individual behaviour is not enough. Governments need to act.

Products with unduly short lifetimes should be excluded from the market, in the same way as those that are unsafe. Goods such as household appliances should be labelled with their intended lifespan, measured in years or cycles, alongside energy labels. The tax system should be used to favour repair over replacement, and items sold with lengthy guarantees.

There is nothing inevitable about a throwaway society or an unsustainable economy. 

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