Longer Life Products
by Chris Tuppen
Chris Tuppen (British, born 1954) has been involved in sustainability for over twenty years. He runs Advancing Sustainability LLP and is an honorary professor at Keele University. He was previously BT’s chief sustainability office.
Extending warranties will encourage improved design for longevity and repair. This will reduce waste to landfill, reduce the use of increasingly scarce raw materials and reduce carbon emissions associated with mining, refining and manufacture.
We live in a throw away society. When products fail we more often than not go out and buy new ones. And when we throw the old products away, at worst they end up in landfill, and at best they will be fragmented with some of the materials being recycled. Many feel that a combination of pressure on companies to grow revenues and an in-built consumer preference for cheaper products has led to products designed to be cheap to manufacture rather than cheap to own over the long term.
In developed economies, it didn’t used to be like this – one just needs to talk to a person that grew up in the middle of the last century. And in many developing economies they still recover every last bit of value out of products.
Figure 3: Bicycle repair shop in India
So what could be done to address this? One simple solution would be to extend product warranties. Recent consumer research in the UK has shown that customers both expect and want product warranties to be longer than they often are, and that they are prepared to pay more for this.
Figure 4: Expected and wanted standard warranties for durable products
Source: WRAP, 2013
Figure 5: Willingness to pay for longer standard warranties for durable products
Source: WRAP, 2013
Product reliability follows a classic ‘bathtub’ curve with high levels of infant mortality as manufacturing defects manifest themselves, followed by the serviceable life and finally the wear out phase. The manufacturer’s or retailer’s liability generally extends little beyond the warranty period, which is often no more than one year. If this was extended then the manufacturer would be encouraged to design for better reparability and longer life. A beneficial side effect would be to make end of life refurbishment and product reuse far more cost effective.
Figure 6: ‘Bathtub’ curve for product reliability
The bottom line of this from an environmental perspective is significant. A product that lasts twice as long results in a halving of the number of products entering the waste stream, a halving of manufacturing feedstock consumption and halving of the CO2e emissions associated with raw material extraction, processing and manufacturing.
A good case study is ISE, a small washing machine supplier based in Kilmarnock, Scotland. Their machines are designed to be robust, reliable and repairable through a ‘no parts mark up pledge’ when the guarantee period runs out. In fact the company’s stated objective is to reduce the amount of washing machines sold each year. On the surface, this is a very unusual approach for a business that depends on selling new products.
All ISE machines are made by Asko, based in Vara, Sweden in a factory that traditionally supplies commercial machines to the UK market. The machines are sold online and delivered and installed via a network of independent service engineers. Their standard model is designed to last at least 8,000 cycles and comes with a full ten year parts and labour warranty. Components are made from engineered metal rather than moulded plastic and the grades of steel used are of the highest. ISE say this makes them 4–6 times more durable than good quality domestic machines, and over 10 times more durable than ‘value machines’ sold by the major chains.
ISE encourage the longest possible life for their machines by selling spare parts at cost price and making technical information and diagnostics freely available to repairers. This makes their machines economic to repair and recondition after the guarantee period has run out, extending their life even further.
I believe we should build institutional support for longer life products, including among consumer groups, while presenting a convincing social, environmental and economic case and securing a change in consumer regulation.
Evidence of consumer demand for retailer services on electrical products that offer alternatives to new product purchase, WRAP, 2013. http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/resource-efficient-business-models-consumer-research
Towards The Circular Economy – Economic and business rationale for an accelerated transition, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2012
A New Dynamic – effective business in a circular economy, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2013 (in press) – White Goods Case Study.
 Evidence of consumer demand for retailer services on electrical products that offer alternatives to new product purchase, WRAP, 2013. http://www.wrap.org.uk/content/resource-efficient-business-models-consumer-research
 This is not entirely accurate – at least for the UK. The law requires a product to be fit for purpose irrespective of the stated warranty period. However, it is a lot more difficult to claim against this legal provision than it is to claim against a standard warranty.