When your toaster breaks, or your vacuum, or even your laptop, it's often cheaper to buy a replacement than attempt a repair. That's one reason the world throws out more than 50 million tons of gadgets each year. But a new French law is trying to push manufacturers to start designing products that are easier to fix.
Under the new directive, manufacturers will have to label products with information about how long spare parts will be available. Next year, manufacturers will also be required to offer free repair or replacement for the first two years after purchase.
"These sorts of labeling and product longevity requirements are a huge win for consumers," says Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit, a wiki-based site that aims to teach people how to fix any type of product. He argues that they're also a win for manufacturers—even if it means it might cost slightly more to make something that lasts.
"Right now, manufacturers have been caught in a downward price spiral where consumers want cheaper and cheaper products, and so they reduce material, and they make parts out of plastic instead of metal to reduce costs," he explains. "I think that this sort of trend is actually a good thing for manufacturers, because it will allow them to compete on quality again. I expect it will probably cause a bit of a price increase in product prices, but I think that will be far more than offset by quality increases."
Last month, the French government considered adding another law that would require manufacturers to add labels that say exactly how long a product is expected to last. Though that didn't pass—senators argued that it would be too hard to predict a lifespan—the new law about parts could provide some clues.
"If you think about going to Home Depot to pick out a washing machine, there's no good way to tell which one's going to last 10 or 20 years," says Wiens. "So letting the manufacturers disclose how long they're supporting the product at retail time is a really useful signal."
The French senate also recently voted to outlaw planned obsolescence, the practice of intentionally designing products that won't last, in order to sell more. If the law is finalized, violators will face a potential fine of 300,000 Euro or two years in prison. The biggest challenge, of course, is that it would be hard to prove that something was deliberately designed to break. (And if something like an iPhone is designed to quickly feel obsolete, does that count?)
Though France may be first to implement these laws, others may follow. In the U.S., the Digital Right to Repair organization is pushing for similar legislation. "I think France is really at the front end of what needs to happen around the world," says Wiens. "This is critical."
Even without the laws, some companies are already trying to make products designed to last—like this smartphone made to last at least a decade.