EU regulation: the sledgehammer to miss the nut

by Richard North

Note: There may be something in what Richard says. The car part scam is certainly true. A bulb went in my front light a few weeks ago, and I am facing a bill for hundreds to replace the whole light unit when I finally get the service done. It is almost impossible to buy third party spares for cars or gas boilers; and, once you have paid a fortune for something, you are locked into an increasingly expensive cycle of repairs. However, planned obsolescence claims for appliances as a whole have been around for a long time, and are mostly based on a misunderstanding of market forces and technological progress. Consider:

1. There doesn’t need to be anything like perfect competition for manufacturers to compete on price and quality. If one manufacturer sells products that are designed to die within a year, people will tend to switch to better products. For example, I bought a Toshiba notebook computer in 2004. Just outside the warranty period, something called the fl inverter died, and I had to choose between an expensive repair and replacement. In fact, one of my clients gave me a new Toshiba notebook. Eighteen months later, I had the same problem. Since then, I have avoided anything made by Toshiba. If this was a ploy to increase sales for Toshiba, it didn’t work in my case.

2. In many cases, it is sensible for products not to be made with durability in mind. I bought my first notebook computer in 1992. It had 1Mb of RAM and a 20Mb hard drive, and a 286 processor. Would I really want it still to be in working order? How about the Kodak digital camera I bought in 2001, with its c250Kp resolution? No. Let such products be made to work well until they become useless to do what people want of them. The same is true of the music system I bought in 1988. I might add that things like digital cameras and mobile telephones easily outlast their usable lives. Every year, I give things away that are still in perfect working order, but that I regard as obsolete. Also, many people are highly conscious of fashion. They want to replace appliances for purely aesthetic reasons. When such people comprise enough of the customer base, there is no good reason for those appliances to be made to last forever.

3. Over the past twenty years, the prices of most electrical products have fallen sharply in both real and nominal terms. This is partly due to improvements in manufacturing and distribution technology, and partly to cost cutting. If you want a pair of headphones to last as well as they did in the 1980s, you only need to pay roughly what you did in the 1980s. Mrs Gabb and I spent £1,000 on a Sony widescreen television in 2000. It is still working as well as on the day I took it from the box.

4. When even electronic products are mature, and there is no reason to keep upgrading, durability does seem here to be a standard feature. For example, I bought an HP Laserjet 1100 in 1999. It had a design fault that made it malfunction in 2000. HP sent me a piece of cardboard to shove into the paper feed. That sorted the problem, and the printer is still working today. It still does exactly what I bought it to do, which was to produce high quality black and white text on one side of the paper. Oh, and the toner cartridges have come down in price from £c60 to £c6.

I suppose the summarised case is that, if you want it to last longer than three years, you should consider paying more than £250 for a fridge-freezer. SIG

EU regulation: the sledgehammer to miss the nutkettle 002.jpgMost of us are familiar with the EU’s waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEE) directive, aimed, or so they say, at reducing the quantity of electrical and electronic waste produced, and to promote reuse, recycling and other forms of recovery.

One wonders, though, whether this regulation is not a little misplaced, when – according to an intriguing piece in Saarbrücker Zeitung, much of the equipment would not need to be discarded, if it wasn’t for the deliberate strategies of consumer goods manufacturers.

The paper rehearses a familiar scene: the warranty expires and the machine breaks down. Everyone has experienced it but consumer experts believe that this is not accidental. They suspect there is a system to this, in order to force customers to buy new products.

Jocularly, I have many times suggested that certain equipment is fitted with a “self-destruct” chip, programmed to make an appliance break down the moment the warranty ends.

And now, a Green parliamentary group commissioned study effectively conforms the suspicion that things lasted longer in the past. Whether printers, headphones, washing machines, coffee machines or electric toothbrushes, manufacturers build weaknesses into the designs and use materials of poor quality to ensure that their products break or wear out faster.

The authors of the report estimate that artificially reducing the usable life of equipment could cost Germans as much as €137 billion, assuming that households spend about a tenth of its budget for wear-prone devices.

The existence of this scam was demonstrated in one type of computer printer. The manufacturer had incorporated a counter and a system to cripple the machine after a certain number of pages had been printed. After resetting the counter, the printer worked perfectly again.

Electric toothbrushes were another example. They often contain batteries that cannot be replaced and the charging function is rapidly exhausted. The device must be discarded and a new one purchased.

With laptop computers, the researchers found that housings and built-in components were often glued, making repairs so difficult and expensive that they were largely uneconomic or impossible.

Headphones are yet another example. Cable breaks due to inferior workmanship are now common under normal use, to the extent that they have become the norm. Washing machines suffer broken heaters because of fatigue, which is now the most common cause of breakdown, the frequency of that defect having risen significantly in recent years.

Rigging spares availability is also practised. For instance, door handles for appliances are often not available separately; when they break, the customer has to buy the whole door. Zippers, shoes, textiles, office chairs and many other consumer items are designed not to be capable of economic repair.

My particular bête noir is electric kettles (pictured). Heating elements seem to last no time at all and cannot be replaced – even if spares were available, which they are not. Consumers, therefore, are forced to replace otherwise perfectly good kettles.

And the point that the Greens make – rightly for once – is that this planned obsolescence creates huge piles of unnecessary rubbish. However, where we depart from the Greens is in suggesting that, rather than pursuing laws to deal with the discarded product, it might be better to address this issue. Doubling the average life of consumer products would, perforce, halve the waste.

The Greens are calling for clear guidelines “for the reparability and interchangeability of parts”, but another strategy would be to devise statutory minima for warranties. For most products, it would be relatively simple to ascertain a reasonable life, and if manufacturers were obliged to replace short-life machines, free of charge, we might see a change of attitude.

Unspoken, but nonetheless implied, is a rebuke to those who argue for light-touch regulation. We all have our stories to tell, and in addition to the kettle sage, I recall having to spend several hundred pounds replacing an undamaged windscreen wiper assembly, simply because a small but vital rubber grommet had perished.

Then there was the computer monitor which failed because a simple component overheated, but which cost more to replace than the cost of a new monitor. When I took it to a specialist in the hope of repair, he guessed what was wrong, before even opening it up.

As always, therefore, the corporates rob you blind. Slick PR presents them as the consumer friend, but their ultimate objective is to take as much money from us as they possibly can, in return for as little as the market will allow. Where price competition is strong, they simply find other ways of rigging the market.

Between them and us lie the regulators, but it is our misfortune that we are saddled with the EU as a regulatory body. It seems to have a genius for making the wrong sort of regulation, to cover the wrong contingencies. Theirs is the doctrine of the “sledgehammer to miss the nut”, so that we end up paying for the regulatory costs as well as being cheated by our suppliers.

Leaving the EU would not guarantee us sensible (or even better) regulation, but at least it would enable us to try a different tack.



  • Well, I think Sean has the right way of it. These complaints are based in general on misunderstandings regarding how the market works. It is more expensive to make repairable goods in many cases, while other times repairs are possible (as with replacing rechargable batteries) to consumers with a modicum of technical knowledge, even if parts are not officially supplied by the manufacturer.

    And there is the general contradiction that “Greens” want ever more stringent efficiences imposed on goods (the amount of water used by washing machines is now so low that it seems to me to be sub-optimal) but then want the old inefficient ones to last for decades in use. It is the same as complaining that Americans should drive smaller cars, but then demandin that they keep driving those gigantic 1970s things you see in Kojak.

    I am also a little suspicious of that computer printer with the “obsolence counter”. Was it in the printer, or the cartridge? Many manufacturers use a simple counter system to work out when the cartridge needs replacing. Is it that they’re talking about?

    Kettles last a lot longer if you descale them regularly. I had one that lasted so long, it died when the plastic lost its integrity from years and years of heating and cooling. The element was still fine.

    My most recent appliance failure was the washing machine. Virtually all of the parts are replaceable, but the one that had failed, the “spider” that holds the drum to its shaft had corroded away, and that had also damaged the drum, and replacement was not economic. It was manufactured in 1998, according to internal labelling.

    • Mrs G and I bought an expensive toaster in 1996 – it cost £108. When we bought the Aga in 2004, we gave the toaster to her brother, who then burnt out a couple of the elements by using a knife to get stuck toast out – as one does! I was able to take the thing apart and tie together the broken element wires. It’s still going strong.

      You get what you pay for in even a partially free economy. Often, however, the cheapies turn out to be a blessing.

  • On the computer monitor issue by the way, I care a lot about this. I love CRT monitors, but the Greens in the name of efficiency had them done away with, replaced by inferior LCDs which are vastly more expensive to get professional quality than the mature and repairable CRT technology.

    Nowadays, it is effectively impossible to find someone who will even repair a CRT. I tried, at the end of 2011. Nobody is interested, and you can’t get the parts; hence, my current CRT is a lucky find on eBay, but they are becoming ever more scarce, in decent condition.

    This is one personal reason I despise the Greens with every fibre of my being.

    • I prefer LCD monitors. They save space. Then again, I am a text man.

  • A mini saves space compared to an estate car, until you want to move something bigger than a breadbox. 🙂

  • I think maybe the general point is that many people don’t grasp that entropy affects everything. All goods are ultimately disposable. Some have lifetimes in the hundreds or thousands of years- stone statues, for instance- but even they are slowly degrading. At least if they’re outdoors. And the point is that costs escalate rapidly as you desire improved reliability.

    A good example is space probe robots. They cost hundreds of millions because of the need for high reliability; the technology in them is usually rather mundane, but the costs come from needing a run of the mill (in terms of capability) computer that will almost certainly keep working all the way to Jupiter, rather than one you can replace by popping down to PC world.

    • Agreed.

      I think my only gripe with the elecrojunk makers is that batteries still don’t last as long as I’d like. My notebook battery now last about five hours, which is just enough for my own reasonable needs. However, my tablet battery lasts only a few hours when I’m reading pdf files, and my mobile telephone lasts a couple of days. I want these things to last for weeks of intermittent use.

      Perhaps I need to wait a little longer before I can progress fully into digital heaven.

  • That’s simply a matter that battery development is evolutionary, and consumers have chosen more bells and whistles that suck up battery life (color screens, bluetooth and whatnot) and, particularly, higher processiing power, rather than battery life.

    I had a Tosh laptop in the 90s similar to the one in your preface (8086, 1MB, 20MB HD (I think it was a solid state HD)) mono “CGA-like” screen, and if we were happy with that spec today, and indeed the rather chunky weight, the life from a modern battery would be very impressive indeed. But we aren’t.

  • ALL batteries are chemical devices. They work by allowing electrons to siphon along a “circuit” outside the battery, and “do work” in an electrical circuit of whatever kind, on the way.

    ALL “electrode potentials” are fixed, by immutable physical laws, which even libertarians – let alone socialists – complain about to their own frustrated vanity.

    If you want a longer-lasting battery of any sort whatever, then you have to get a bigger and heavier one of the same chemistry. An enormous Lithium-Cobalt-oxide computer battery will last some hours more than a small, nice, portable cheap one.

    Batteries are not magic devices: they obey Faradaic Laws of electro-physics.

  • Well David, I think a Libertarian government should look into amending or repealing these “physical” laws, since they are clearly standing in the way of progress.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Ian B, I concur heartily.

    The Greens and the Climate Alarmists have repealed several of the more obstructive ones. Why should they have all the fun? (Not to mention fame and, in some cases, fortune,)

  • Julie near Chicago

    Fashion is everything, because people (mistakenly) think that being fashionable means being high-status means being truly classy.

    Which, of course, is hogwash.

    Also, people like novelty.

    Most marketing it seems to me is aimed at snaring the bucks of those two groups, and the manufacturers manufacture what is cheap, easy to make, and sells; which, they conclude, is the stuff that satisfies the crowd defined above.

    I’d like to tell them that there’s a smaller but very real market in folks who, despite not having a lot of money to spend, will go for high-quality stuff that works well, for a very long time, and can be fixed if necessary. We are willing to pay premium prices for such things.

    There are so many things that meet our needs nicely, and that we don’t want to have to replace because we like them as they are. And this “it’s cheaper to buy a new one than to repair the old” that people are forever throwing at us is so short-sighted! I have a nice, big, 800-W microwave that was state-of-the-art when I got it in January, 1981. The only one made at the time with a built-in carousel, and a huge oven cavity. Two years later the klystron went, and the repair people told me it “really wasn’t worth it to repair, since that would cost almost as much as just getting a new one.” So I got it repaired. At that time the new micros all had much less oven capacity than mine….

    I have it still and haven’t had another minute’s trouble with it. So it’s slightly slower in cooking than the Latest and Greatest. Big deal. It’s also STILL taller inside than most.

    Or I could have spent more money to replace it with something I didn’t like. And then replaced that in two or three years. And so on. It’s a mindset thing, but if my mind were set on “oh it’s busted throw it out the new stuff is better anyway” I’d have spent a fair wad on micros by now. (Every so often some well-meaning but dimwit friend says I need a new micro, the one I have is so old. Say what? I “need” it why??) Same with my 1976 top-of-the-line KitchenAid stand mixer, and my Osterizer blender same vintage….

    My kids were thinking of suicide unless they got the mixer, blender, food processor and we mean Now *G*. Strangely enough Santa had been nosing around eBay that year, and they got the littermates to my mixer and blender. I expect another hundred years out of both.

    There are things we really do want to get once and be done with it. And other things where we just make do with what’s available until state-of-the-art produces our hearts’ desires. Stuff like that doesn’t have to be prime quality and it’s silly to pay the big bucks if you know something more attractive TO YOU is right around the corner.

  • I won’t go into the complex geography of the Gabb house. But we need an extractor pump in the basement, so we can have a washing machine down there. Two years ago, the thing stopped working. A replacement would have cost £300, plus labour costs. So I looked it up on the Internet and discovered that a capacitor had probably gone. Straight round the corner I went to the local electrical shop, where a capacitor of the right type was in the cheapie bin for 50p. An hour later, the pump was back in working order. It still is.

    When I was a boy, and we were going through a hard up phase, I mended my mother’s ironing board with a two inch length of coat hanger wire.

    Useful stuff, coat hanger wire.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Yes it is, Sean, and with the more-than-299 pounds you saved, you can buy a LOT of the stuff! 😉

  • The headlight bulb went 3 weeks ago. I got a new one at Halfords and the bloke fitted it as well for £14. Doesn’t seem that bad as far as spare parts go.

  • I read this on a Toyota blog:

    hi all,

    I’m having some problems changing the dipped headlight bulb. i have the T-3x Diesel model.

    I took off the engine coompartment plastic front, but because the washer funnel to the left of the engine is right in front of the headlight unit box, tere is very little space to open it up and remove the bulb. I don’t see how I can get this unit open without having force the Windscreen washer funnel back, and i really don’t want to screw up a 4 month old car already!!!

    Could anyone give me some advice on how to do this.



    My eyes glazed over at once. It can wait till the service.

  • Blaming the EU is always amusing but it’s bollocks. We don’t have the most heinous victim disarmament laws in Europe because of the EU. The Defence of the Realm At wasn’t thanks to the EU, and so on. The problem is the political classes that rule in this country.

  • …Defence of the Realm Act…

  • Richard North and Christopher Booker have shown (in great detail in many books and articles) how the E.U. is the source of a lot of wrongheaded regulation

    That the E.U. is not the sourse of all problems does not mean it is the source of some problems. Leaving the EU would not solve all problems – but it would be a start to solving some problems,

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