Feature Articles | Retail Practices

Product obsolescence: what can legally be done?

By : Yann Fortier

Repairability index, tougher laws, ecotaxes, and financial incentives could add to the variety of solutions intended to reduce product obsolescence. How can we take action?

Michelle Cumyn is a professor at Université Laval’s Faculty of Law. In her opinion, consumers know very little about the law, whereas manufacturers have managed to get around the rules, particularly when it comes to the traditional warranty.

For instance, the five-year guarantee for home appliances may lead people to believe that after five years, it is implicitly normal to see an appliance’s quality decline. The professor specifies that the legal guarantee can then be evoked, but this warranty could be clearer and more precise.

She also considers that products sold in Quebec should come with a legal framework encouraging better access to parts, as well as repair and maintenance services. And the extended warranty? “To me, that’s the equivalent of throwing money out the window!”

Talking about warranties is the same as talking about a key component of obsolescence, consisting of promoting the toss-and-rebuy cycle instead of keeping and repairing. In other words, any framework contributing to preserving an item works against obsolescence.

Grasping an information overload

Cumyn reiterates that consumers are more conscientious of product durability, given growing environmental concerns.

“One of the challenges lies in finding concerted solutions between consumers and environmental laws.”

She points out that “Quebec’s consumer laws put a lot of focus on giving consumers information, such as mandatory mentions in contracts, annexes, texts on a website, or texts accompanying prices or labels.”

However, she says “overly detailed or technical information can turn consumers off.” This leads to a wall of confusion, inciting these consumers to back down from undertaking any measures.

Reparability index

Since January 2021, France requires that a reparability index be posted and visible on various types of electronics and appliances. This lever aims to inform consumers and, ultimately, to facilitate purchases.1

The main criteria include access to technical documentation, disassembly, tools, and parts. An inspiration for Quebec and Canada? Perhaps, but Cumyn believes that these grades should be granted by a third-party organization and not by the manufacturer.

In her opinion, manufacturers could cover the costs of recycling. “This approach could force them to produce more durable products.”

She also evokes applying an ecotax that could be adapted to a product’s claimed and actual longevity. “For instance, if your dishwasher has a life expectancy of 20 years, the ecotax to be paid by the manufacturer would be less than another’s with an estimated longevity of 10 years.” This approach could be based on sampling in ecocentres in order to confirm the longevity.

Perilous exercise

Determining an accurate life expectancy or “normal” product obsolescence is no easy feat. Professor at the Université Laval’s Faculty of Law, Marc Lacoursière mentions certain factors to be considered. For instance, the product’s nature and the manufacturer’s reputation can have an impact on key comparables: “We all know that there are better quality brands and products out there,” he says.

He also raises other questions: “A computer can last 20 years or 1 year. What’s the actual, normal life expectancy? 10 years? 5 years? Is it any surprise that a business needs to update software which can hinder the performance of certain devices?”

A green apple?

At the end of 2021, Apple announced that it planned to facilitate self-serve repairs for its iPhone 12 and 13, as early as 2022. The first phase of the project would focus on the most popular components, such as screens, batteries, and cameras.

Although some people question whether this approach adds value, as well as facilitates access to maintenance tools and the cost of parts, many others welcome the intention to integrate consumers into the repair chain for its popular devices.

Lacoursière suggests that certain companies could benefit from a more exemplary practice at the beginning, which could lead to a reduced  need for a legal framework. “If Apple allows you to replace your batteries, that’s a good thing,” he says.

He mentions, however, that repairing a toaster could “turn into a huge ordeal with huge costs.” To be continued.

Politiques publiques, Économie circulaire et déchets, Indice de réparabilité, ministère de la transition écologique.