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Planned Obsolescence

30 November 2022

The Hon. R.A. SIMMS: I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

In the 1920s, the makers of light bulbs wanted to find a competitive edge. They worked in Geneva in January 1925 to create an alliance to work together to find solutions. They were called the Phoebus Cartel, and they discovered that, if you reduce the life span of your product, you can sell more of them. They reduced the life expectancy of light bulbs from 2,500 hours to 1,000 hours to generate higher sales. By creating an inferior bulb, they could save on manufacturing costs and force customers to buy more. It worked: the cartel increased their sales by more than one million units in four years.

This become known as planned obsolescence; marketeers soon realised that shortening life spans was a way to activate commerce. During the Great Depression planned obsolescence was seen as a way of stimulating the economy, so in the United States there was even a push by citizens to legislate for limited life spans so that products were reproduced.

The idea of limiting life spans was quickly picked up by other industries, and in 2022 we now see it employed in cars, in smartphones, in batteries, in ink cartridges, vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances and more. I have often experienced this in my own home in my quest to find a vacuum cleaner that seems to go the distance. Planned obsolescence is often blamed for the increased waste in electric goods, and in 2016 Australia generated 23.6 kilograms of e-waste per inhabitant—that is a lot of material ending up in landfill, 65 per cent, in fact.

By reducing the life span of products, manufacturers are contributing to the throwaway economy, where consumers are encouraged to simply throw away products and buy a new one earlier than is necessary. It is unfair to consumers to expect them to continually purchase items that could have been built with longevity in mind. This bill, which provides for an advertised life span of electrical products, has been introduced at this time to coincide with the Christmas sales, because I know during this economic crisis a lot of South Australians will be considering how they can get bang for their buck, and many will be concerned about purchasing items that may have a much shorter life span than intended.

In recent years, there have been several legal cases against manufacturers who are intentionally shortening the life span of their products. In 2018, for instance, Apple had to pay $27 million under the European Parliament for intentionally shortening the life span of their products after it was discovered that software updates were being used to slow down their phones. Cases have also been brought in other jurisdictions against printer companies for building ink cartridges with smart chips that disable the device when the ink is low.

Any item with a non-removable lithium ion battery in rechargeable devices is naturally going to have a shorter life span as the battery degrades over time. Of course, we accept that—that is covered by the bill. We see it in many items we use daily, such as battery-operated headphones, handheld blenders, handheld vacuum cleaners and children's toys.

Other jurisdictions have begun to stop this wasteful practice. In 2014, France passed legislation making it an offence to deliberately reduce the life span to increase replacement rates. The bill I am introducing today takes a consumer awareness approach. The Fair Trading (Lifespan of Electrical Products) Amendment Bill requires that the shortest life span of an electrical product is advertised at the point of sale. Retailers would provide a label with that information made available to the consumer. This would allow consumers to make an informed choice in terms of the products they select, reducing the cost for the consumer and reducing the material that ends up in landfill.

A report tabled in the European Parliament states that 92 per cent of consumers would prefer for their products to be labelled with their life span or useful life. People feel cheated, understandably so, when they find out that a product they have bought was meant to only last for a few years. When purchasing a dishwasher, consumers should know if the components will last for five years or if they will last for 15 years. Most would rather pay a little bit more at the point of initial sale rather than having to continually replace a product, generating more waste and, of course, more cost for the consumer.

The bill ensures that consumers will have accurate information about the durability of their product at the time of purchase, measured in years, months, days, cycles or kilometres. Further, it ensures that the product is treated as a whole, with the component with the shortest life span being the one that is disclosed. These measures would ensure that consumers are given the most accurate information available about the life span of their product.

Next time, Mr President, when you are considering an electrical item, I urge you to consider whether you would know how long it is going to last before you buy it, and would you still buy it if you knew that it was only going to last for one year or maybe two, or would you choose a different product? By ensuring that we are giving consumers choice we can solve two problems in one: we can halt the unreasonable practice of planned obsolescence and reduce the enormous amounts of e-waste generated.