Built not to last: How Spain is addressing ‘programmed obsolescence’
The term ‘programmed obsolescence’ basically means that electronics and electrical appliances are deliberately designed to stop fulfilling their function, or stop working at all, after a set length of time, so consumers are forced to buy new ones – a way of keeping the corporations who manufacture them in constant profit.
It is not always just a case of newer, trendier models hitting the shelves which customers buy because they are embarrassed to admit they still have an ‘old one’ – in the example of mobile phones, their functions are constantly upgraded so as to cease working on earlier models, meaning those who still want to use these have to buy new ones and, as these new phones become the majority in circulation, the programs that work on them become more and more mainstream.
An example of this is the messenger service WhatsApp, which stops working and ‘self-destructs’ on phones over a certain age every few months; if the majority of one’s social and professional circle uses WhatsApp to communicate, it means the owner has to choose between being left out or buying a new phone so as to carry on using it.
Another form of ‘programmed obsolescence’ is where an appliance or device begins to malfunction after a certain age, and either the cost of repair exceeds that of buying new, or nobody can be found to repair it due to its complexity or lack of parts available.
And according to one of Spain’s leading consumer protection organisations, the OCU, over 60% of faults and breakages with mobile phones, in particular, happen within the first two years.
This is fine if they are covered by guarantee – which is a minimum of two years, by law – but the most common problems, such as a faulty USB port, are likely to be outside the terms of this.
Germany has now made it a legal requirement for all devices to be repairable and parts available at a lesser cost than replacement, and software upgrades to enable Apps to function, for at least seven years.
In fact, the European Commission, when reviewing the environmental issue of ‘programmed obsolescence’ – the massive amounts of electronic waste piling up, and the damage to the planet from mining for new materials – stated that the hardware of a mobile phone should be able to survive up to 25 years and, if parts for repairs and software upgrades were available, would be able to continue to function fully for a minimum of 12 years.
What is Spain doing about it?
So far, Spain has not taken Germany’s bold move but has sought to warn consumers and help them make informed choices when buying.
A little-known new law introduced in March this year means all electrical appliances and electronics on sale are required to carry a ‘repairability label’, giving them a mark out of 10 for how easy, cheap or otherwise they are to fix if they go wrong.
Also, consumers must now be given the option to repair if this exists, and have a right to do so if they wish.
This means that there can be no situation where a manufacturer does not have an appliance engineer available in the consumer’s area, meaning they ‘are unable to offer a repair under guarantee or outside it, and the brand cannot refuse to fix an item on the grounds that it would be ‘cheaper and easier to sell the customer another one, whether or not this is the case.
At present, though, Spain’s consumer law changes have not made it a legal requirement for manufacturers to be able to repair items after the guarantee has expired, so they can still legitimately claim the parts are not available after this time or tell the customer the device cannot be fixed.
How does the ‘repairability label’ work, and what does it apply to?
Effectively, anything electrical is susceptible to being labeled – mobile phones, tablets, computers, television sets, washing machines, loudspeakers, refrigerators, and so on – and the sticker must be in a prominent place on the outside of the item or the box, whichever is on display.
If these goods are available for purchase online, the web page must include the ‘repairability label’ in an easy-to-spot place.
It is designed in a similar way to the energy-efficiency tag on domestic appliances – with traffic-light colours in an arc and an arrow pointing to one of these, between red for ‘very difficult or expensive to repair’ through to green, the exact opposite.
A number scheme also applies – from 1, the equivalent of red, and 10, for maximum repairability.
This digit is based upon paperwork supplied by the manufacturers – which they are obliged to do now – detailing how simple or otherwise the appliance or device is to take apart, how quickly and easily spare parts can be sourced, how easy it is to upgrade the software, and the cost of repair compared with the price of the item as new.
Each criterion is graded by the manufacturer by number, up to a maximum of 20, and the ‘repairability index’ is calculated by totalling the points given and dividing the result by 10.
One downside which is likely to arise from the new system, though, is that goods with a ‘repairability index’ score close to 10 may well end up being far more expensive to buy than an item with the arrow on red, or close to 1, meaning consumers may still take a short-term approach to save money and go for the more disposable types.
It is not yet clear whether the consumer protection law reform addresses this.
In general, however, at this stage, it is aimed at raising awareness among buyers of the possibility of repairs being carried out when a device develops a fault or stops working as desired, so they do not automatically assume they need to throw it away and buy another – and to force product developers to pay more attention to repairing, reminding them of their moral obligation to facilitate this.
Action has already been taken for ‘programmed obsolescence’ on both sides of the Atlantic
Key industry players have been ‘caught out’ as consumer awareness increases, and especially with companies now under pressure from their clientèle to adopt sustainable, ethical, and socially responsible practices.
The first fines issues for ‘programmed obsolescence’ came in 2018 at the hands of Italy’s Competition Authority, with Apple threatened with a €10 million sanction and Samsung €5m for ‘dishonest commercial practices, according to the case at the time.
Software upgrades on older phones caused them to function much more slowly than before, which was deliberate, and consumers ended up buying new devices as the frustration became intolerable or made it impossible for them to use for work.
Apple reached an out-of-court agreement in the USA to pay US$500m in compensation to users who filed legal action after their earlier iPhones, such as the 6 and 7, started to run painfully slowly following automatic software upgrades, and the batteries ran down very quickly.
These users said they were forced to replace their devices with newer versions, and swiftly cottoned onto the fact that the defect was consciously introduced so as to leave them with no choice but to spend money.
Not only mobile phone companies have faced legal action over ‘programmed obsolescence. Nintendo Switch users complained en masse that defects arose in their Joy-Con controllers making the avatar on-screen move by itself.
What was thought initially to be a manufacturing fault eventually sparked suspicion when 88% of gamers in Europe experienced the same problem within less than two years of purchasing their device.
The European Consumer Organisation ordered Nintendo to fix the fault and to clearly and explicitly inform users of the true shelf-life of their Joy-Cons.
What to do with an old mobile phone
Ideas have been listed in various Spanish daily media as to how consumers can avoid adding to the ‘European electronic waste mountain’ if they really do have to replace their mobile phones.
Some phone shops will take old handsets as a trade-in against a new one, so they can reuse the parts in manufacturing, and certain department stores or major chains have recycling points where customers can drop off old mobile phones, chargers with broken wires or which no longer work, and other small electronics.
These will then be stripped down and their elements used again in manufacturing, either for creating the same type of items or for building different ones.
Other suggestions include the obvious – if the phone still works but the consumer has decided to upgrade, to give it to a friend or relative or to charity, to a child or teenager as their first phone, or to an elderly or non-technologically savvy friend or family member so they can learn how to use a smartphone.
If it does not work, once the battery is taken out, it can be given to a child to play with.
For older phones, some of the functions may still be working properly even if key ones do not – using them for games, for Google Maps or as a sat-nav, as a clock or alarm clock, calendar, diary or notepad, as a ‘spare’ or ‘extra’ camera or video camera (or even as a hand-mirror when in ‘selfie’ mode), or merely for storage of photos or documents like a USB pen-drive, means not having to use up battery on one’s main phone, or having a back-up of all the foregoing in a different room.
They can be used in the same way as the old iPods and MP3 players for those who like to listen to music whilst out running, walking, or exercising the dog – then, if the old mobile gets lost or stolen when going for a jog, it will not be a crisis of the same magnitude as if one’s main mobile disappears.
Another trick is to keep it charged as a 112 emergency call device – if a phone is lost or stolen and an urgent or life-threatening situation arises, having an old handset in the glove-box or a back pocket means the user can still ring for help.
This is because 112 works on phones with no signal, no SIM card, no credit if it is a ‘pay-as-you-go’ phone, and even when the battery is too low to make any other calls.
Or pop a cheap SIM card in it on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ basis, and keep it as a spare so as to be able to make a call if the ‘main’ phone breaks, gets lost or stolen, or is temporarily misplaced somewhere.
This way, one’s contacts and their numbers are still stored and accessible, like a digital address book, so a record is still kept even if the newer device goes missing or breaks – and an old mobile with a ‘pay-as-you-go’ SIM in it can be used to call one’s ‘main’ mobile if it cannot be found, to make it ring so it can be traced.
One novel idea floated by the Spanish daily technology newsletter 20Bits is to use an older mobile as a digital photo frame.
Plugged in permanently and with the pictures stored on it opened, if possible on rotation so they change automatically, and disabling the screensaver function so it never goes blank, an old handset with a big enough screen can become a home decoration piece.
Depending upon home storage space and how often a mobile user changes phone, it is worth hanging onto older models since, years down the line, they may even be worth some money as a ‘retro’ item – especially if collectors are able to repair them and get them working again to some degree.
In the same way, as vinyl records went from ‘unfashionable’ to ‘collectible’ in barely two decades, items that used to be considered junk, such as tube television sets, cassette players, and landline phones with a finger-dial, are slowly beginning to become quirky pieces of household décor.
Published thinkspain.com 08 Septembeeeer 2021