On December 19th of last year, the French Parliament voted the “anti-waste bill for a circular economy”. While it still needs to go in front of the joint committee, experts expect very little changes and an adoption during the first quarter of 2020.
The scope of this law is quite wide: it deals with general issues regarding waste, but also our production and consumption model, tackling premature obsolescence. The bill, initially put forward by the Government in July 2019, was largely enriched by Members of Parliament, who added a number of groundbreaking policies to make products more durable and repairable, thus benefitting both citizens and the planet.
A durability scoring system to better recognize products that won’t fail early
Initially, the bill only proposed a mandatory repairability scoring system. As of 2021, electronics would have been scored on a scale of 1 to 10 informing how easy to repair they were (depending on spare parts availability, ease of disassembly, technical information…).
Several improvements have been added to the law: it will be mandatory for manufacturers to publish the detail of their scoring, making it easier for consumers and NGOs to check the reliability of the information and whether products are actually repairable. The price of spare parts, which is key in the decision to repair a faulty product, is also going to be included in the score, following strong demands by HOP and others.
It’s always useful to know, at the moment of purchase, how repairable a product is. However, it’s even better to know which product will work the longest without needing to be repaired.
That’s why one of HOP’s main requests was to implement a mandatory durability scoring system. This durability score would take into account repairability as well as solidity of materials. This is a strong demand from civil society: 92% of Europeans want a mandatory durability labelling (Eurobarometer 2014). Members of Parliament have heard this concern and introduced this mandatory labelling into the law to come into effect in 2024.
Important provisions to encourage repairing over replacing
The bill addresses repair, in order to limit unnecessary replacement of products and therefore production of waste.
Retailers will have to be transparent about how long spare parts are available for, and spare parts will have to be available for 5 years for some electronic products such as smartphones and laptops, as well as medical products, an important milestone for the Right to Repair.
Products that are impossible to repair – because components are glued together for instance – will also be banned. The legal delivery time for spare parts has also been limited to 15 days from 60 days in the original draft. Choosing repair, reuse and the service economy is also encouraged by the State via public procurement.
One of the major changes that is expected from this bill is the reform of the producer-pays principle: the purpose of extended producer responsibility schemes will no longer be recycling only. More durable, repairable products should be rewarded with a lower tax than disposable products.
The law is also creating an innovative funding mechanism for repair, to make it cheaper: discounts will be available for citizens who go to professional repairers.
Legal guarantees have also been reinforced to encourage repair: consumers who choose repair over replacement will benefit from 6 months of additional guarantee on their product. Purchasing of second-hand products will also be encouraged, with a 12-month guarantee instead of the current 6 months.
The bill also intends to encourage younger citizens to consume more responsibly, with the integration of education to waste prevention (notably through repair) in school programmes.
Further efforts needed on design, advertising and software obsolescence
The circular economy law contains several positive achievements for consumers and our planet, which now have to be translated into concrete impacts.
However, this text is also a missed opportunity on several topics, including design, advertising and software obsolescence.
Firstly, the idea to introduce a usage counter on certain products was raised by MPs. The objective of a usage counter would be similar to that of kilometer counter on cars: on washing machines or televisions, it would give secondhand products a more objective value (depending on how much they have been used before) and enable more accurate advice on how to maintain products throughout their lifetime. This useful measure has however been scrapped from the bill after debates. A simple voluntary usage counter has been encouraged through a better durability score. HOP is asking to make this counter mandatory for all new products to make it possible to compare them according to their lifespans. This kind of measure could be considered at European level.
Advertising often pushes us to consume more than we need and is at the core of an unsustainable model. HOP advocates for more regulation of advertising and more coherence in the messages that are given to consumers (on the one hand, consumers are told to make better choices for the environment; on the other hand, they are constantly being targeted by advertising). This issue is not sufficiently addressed by the law, which only bans scandalous advertising encouraging to throw away functioning products.
Finally, software obsolescence is the cause of growing frustration among consumers who cannot use their devices anymore because of incompatibility between hardware and software, or updates that cause the product to slow down. The French bill only partially tackles the issue, by making it possible for consumers to refuse any update. However, it remains essential to separate two different kinds of updates: security and functional updates. Indeed, functional updates often add new features and are more likely to slow down a phone or a laptop, whereas security updates are indispensable. It could therefore be interesting to introduce this dissociation at the EU level, and go even further by creating a software guarantee that could ensure a product will work with appropriate software for a number of years.
This piece was written by our campaign member HOP, the French anti-obsolescence NGO which led an active lobbying for ambitious policies in favor of durability and repair.
For more information: HOP’s white paper, summarising 50 measures for more durable and repairable products, published in February 2019 (French).
Image: @Wikimedia Commons