France Wants Businesses to Build ‘Em Like They Used to

Source: Thinkstock
Source: Thinkstock

France sure does take a different approach to business and economic issues. Not too long ago, the French government attempted to institute a 75% “millionaire tax,” that ended up failing. Now, French officials are asking product manufacturers to inform consumers how long their products can be expected to last after purchase.

The ultimate goal? Take aim at the notion of planned obsolescence, a concept some companies reportedly use to ensure that new products are always in the pipeline, and that consumers are continuously buying.

The news comes by way of The Washington Post, which says that the French government is levying a decree that will require manufacturers to let retailers and vendors know the expected lifespan and usefulness, and for exactly how long spare parts will be produced. This is particularly important for big ticket items — things like appliances, vacuum cleaners, etc. — that are expensive, and typically require at least a little budgeting on the part of consumers. The penalty for failing to do so? A fine of up to 15,000 Euros. Or $16,800, in U.S. dollars.

But the French government isn’t stopping there. Apparently, there is another law in the works, due to go into effect next year, which will require appliance manufacturers to either repair or replace products that are found to be faulty, for free, for the first two years after purchase. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is more or less how a warranty or product guarantee works, the only difference being that the government doesn’t actually mandate those — they are instead a function of the free market.

While a measure like this would probably be laughed out of Congress in minutes here in the U.S., the French are evidently not willing to sit idly by and watch their washing machines and Dyson vacuums fall apart. An issue so serious, that it apparently required a legislative fix.

What the French are essentially doing is making it extremely difficult for manufacturers to produce things that won’t fall apart in a relatively short period of time. While a rather stringent regulation, the government’s hearts might be in the right place, as it is an attempt to look out for consumers. Even so, a fine of $16,800 or so isn’t really enough to institute large-scale changes to manufacturing workflows, and is more likely just to be a proverbial thorn in the side for businesses, and lead to a lot of lawsuits on the part of consumers looking to get their money back.

So, what would make the legislators in the French government think that this was a good or even necessary idea? It turns out, there is evidence that shows appliances like refrigerators, washing machines, and dishwashers not only have shorter lifespans, but are also less-repairable than in previous generations. A study from The Reuse and Recycling EU Social Enterprises network (RREUSE), which gets its funding from the European Union, says that this is resulting in more purchases than should be necessary, really socking it to consumers.

“Increasing difficulty in separating individual components from the casing or in accessing key parts in the interior of appliances hinders replacement and repair and therefore renders many appliances without reuse potential,” the study says. RREUSE suggests that spare parts be made available for purchase for up to 10 years past manufacturing of major appliances, the parts should be easy to install or remove, and that documentation to help with the repair process should be free and easy to find.

The lack of repairability of items is the essence of planned obsolescence. For a more America-centric example, imagine you drop and break your iPhone. Chances are, you’re not going to repair it yourself, you’re just going to go out and get the newest model that’s available, or wait a few months until the next one inevitably is released. Apple will make considerably more money if you buy a new phone, as opposed to pay to have your old phone repaired. It’s in their best interest to have such a system in place, after all.

Will this plan go down in flames, or actually offer another layer of protection for French consumers? It’s a different approach, that’s for sure. But could end up backfiring, just like the “millionaire tax.”

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