Author: Tone Skårdal Tobiasson
Holding on or letting go? Why don’t consumers complain more? Why do we hang on to stuff that is flawed? And most importantly, how can technical lifespan expansion actually undermine the climate goals? All these questions will be answered at the PLATE conference at Aalto University, in Espoo, Finland.
At the end of May and beginning of June, Consumption Research Norway SIFO at Oslo Metropolitan University will partake in the biannual PLATE (Product Lifetimes and the Environment) conference with a full menu of all in all six papers, and four presenting findings from LASTING, where one is by authors from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.
This paper looks at scenarios for kitchen durables (fridge, dishwasher, stove, and kitchen cupboards) to explore lifetime extension, and investigate the extent to which these interventions could in fact be counter-effective for climate goals set for 2050. The authors, Kamila Krych and Johan B. Pettersen, found that the extra resources invested to ensure more durable products that anyways can land in waste bins prematurely, can be counter-effective in reaching the climate goals set for 2050.
Faster environmental benefits, the authors write, could be achieved by increasing the repair rates by extending product warranties, subsidizing repair services, supporting the development of innovative repair businesses, demanding the availability of spare parts at affordable prices, and increasing the convenience of repair. The paper, The weakest link: How technical lifespan extension can be counter-effective for climate goals, also points to policy addressing “problematic” products as more effective, such as dish-washers that fail more frequently. A belief in design-focused interventions, is clearly questioned, as the authors see this as taking longer to bring effect.
Clearer guidelines in order
Another paper, written by Kirsi Laitala, Lisbeth Løvbak Berg and Pål Strandbakken, addresses consumers’ use and knowledge of the Consumer Purchases Act by asking: Why won’t you complain? Consumer rights and the unmet product lifespan requirements. The paper discusses the reasons for not complaining, based on six consumer focus groups, where in total 36 consumers described furniture, electronics, and textile products that they were dissatisfied with and hadn’t necessarily taken the trouble to claim their consumer rights.
There is a need for clear guidelines on what the consumer rights are for the specific products, the authors write, to make it clear what is considered unacceptable abrasion and normal use, but also to differentiate between commercial warranties and legal rights. Complaints are, after all, an important avenue for businesses to gain information about the performance of their products, and thereby improve them.
In Norway, the right to complain is extended to 5 years for some durable goods, which exceeds the EU requirements of 2 years. This creates confusion about which products and which duration is valid, where consumers often link this to price, rather than the type of product. In addition to clearer guidelines, there are possibilities for new technical solutions to facilitate the storage of receipts and purchase information related to each product, which was especially problematic for low-priced items. Digital product passes, which is on EU’s menu of policy instruments, may be developed with this in mind, and could also include information about consumer rights.
Focus groups offer insights
The two last Lasting papers, are both about what we keep or discard and why, and are based on focus groups, but also some interviews with business representatives. The overarching theme was product longevity of three product groups: electronics, textiles, and furniture. In Flawed or redundant: products with long lifespans against the odds, co-authored by Harald Throne-Holst and Kirsi Laitala, the theme is explored related to reasonings behind keeping things – by only storing them and not using them – or trying to use them even though they are broken or flawed. Five groups of reasoning were presented: Economical, Ethical, Social, Emotional, and Intentions.
In Holding on or letting go? Conflicting narratives of product longevity: a business vs. consumer perspective, authors Lisbeth Løvbak Berg and Marie Hebrok have found that technical and emotional durability are the two dominant ways of understanding product longevity by business representatives, and as such what they aim to embed in their products. Consumers, however, tell a different story, of living with their things, of use, of time passing, and life events triggering change – factors that are external to the product itself. The authors argue that corporate narratives of product longevity divert our attention away from production toward consumption, keeping questions of volume and growth at arm’s length.
Putting on a different set of glasses
In another paper, which is a result of the Wasted Textiles project, this is also explored related only to textiles and clothing: Regulating Fast Fashion out of Fashion, authored by Kerli Kant-Hvass and Ingun Grimstad Klepp. The analysis underpinning the paper is based on a review of 10 textile strategy documents from public, private and non-profit organizations, on whether and how growth and overproduction in the textile industry is being addressed. Merging this with research and findings from the opposite end of the value-chain than these textile strategy documents do (which use design and a focus on “preferred fiber” choices to potentially optimize lifetime), the paper puts forward Targeted Producer responsibility (TPR) as a means to curb volumes effectively and thus reduce environmental impacts.
The project Change will also be presented at PLATE, with volumes of consumption as the appetizer.
Studying clothing consumption volumes through wardrobe studies: a methodological reflection is written by Irene Maldini, Vilde Haugrønning and Lucrecia de León. As not all wardrobe methods take advantage of their volume-centric possibilities, the paper explores lessons from a wardrobe pilot study conducted in Uruguay, Portugal and Norway in 2022 with both male and female respondents. Preliminary findings show that a volume perspective on wardrobe research can give valuable insights on the particularities of clothing use in relation to quantities.
All in all a rich menu
Last, but not least, in relation to durability, the Reduce project will present The devaluation of stockings. Tone Rasch, Ingrid Haugsrud, Kirsi Laitala and Atle Wehn Hegnes (Tone is associated with the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology) explore nylon stockings for women as an example of a product that first was recognized as high fashion, but later has been devalued and is now seen almost as a single-use product. Thin stockings represent a good example of how we value and take care of delicate items has a significant contribution to their lifetimes. Looking into the historical context is beneficial for learning about the points in time when changes occurred and how they contribute to consumer practices.
So, all in all, attendees should be well-satisfied and full of new knowledge, considering this rich menu, which is of course only a small part of the three-day proceedings in Finland. All of the presented PLATE papers are now published on the Aalto University website.