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Product Warranty in a Sustainable Economy

If we are to ever develop in a sustainable manner, one clear prerequisite is to move away from growth, and from planned obsolescence, and towards products that are truly built to last. This will obviously benefit the environment as well as the tremendous majority of people. Of course, a small number, those who always want to have the newest and best things, replacing them as soon as something better comes along, will not be interested in this, but on the one hand that’s a behavior that should often be discouraged, and on the other even those people would stand to gain by having products guaranteed to continue functioning long after they won’t want them anymore, as they’d be able to obtain greater benefits for trading them.

Currently, in the European Union, all products from categories considered to have a typical usable lifespan of at least two years are required to have a warranty of no less than two years if purchased by individual customers, though that drops to a single year if purchased by companies. As a result, while manufacturers are still allowed to sell such products with a shorter warranty, if the product fails within that amount of time, the shop it was purchased from is required to repair it free of charge instead. However, while this is an improvement over the situation that exists in other parts of the world, the legislation is both flawed and far too weak compared to what should actually be done.
Firstly, I don’t see why companies should enjoy less benefits when it comes to product warranty compared to individual customers, especially since, with few exceptions, companies are less likely than individuals to even want to replace such products after less than two years. And secondly, two years is far too little, seeing as the vast majority of these products could easily be built to last at least several years, and even decades when it comes to items such as furniture or building elements, if the manufacturers would want to do so instead of trying to force consumers to replace their products as quickly as possible, which obviously results in waste and an unsustainable economy from the point of view of resource consumption, not to mention a lower standard of living as a result of needing to keep purchasing replacements instead of enhancements.

As such, I first propose a gradual, though rapid, increase in the minimum warranty for most such products, starting with any and all electronics and all other products that perform similar functions. This process could start with an increase to three years on January 1, 2015, then four years on January 1, 2017, and eventually five years on January 1, 2019. On the other hand, the minimum warranty for furniture, household items such as carpets, as well as for building elements such as windows, should be set to five years on January 1, 2015, and then increase by one year every year, reaching ten years on January 1, 2020. Though impossible in practical terms, this change should ideally apply worldwide, so all manufacturers would be required to offer this warranty, without shops being forced to take on the burden for products manufactured outside the area where such a law would be in effect.
My second proposal has to do with the availability of extended warranty. If the customer so desires, they should be able extend the warranty period for their purchased products by purchasing extended warranty services. The maximum number of years that may be added in such a manner should be no less than the base warranty of the product, and the cost shouldn’t exceed 50% of the price of the product if the maximum number of years are purchased. The cost per year should obviously start very low and increase proportionally with the number of additional years that are desired, to reflect the fact that the risk of malfunctions increases with time, not being calculated to spike shortly after the base warranty period expires, as it often happens now due to planned obsolescence.
Last but definitely not least, I wish to see clearly specified rules when it comes to handling products that fail under warranty, starting from limiting the amount of time the customer may be left waiting for the repaired product to no more than 15 working days, the manufacturer being required to offer the option of an immediate refund or replacement if repairs require more time. In addition, products repaired under warranty should be thoroughly verified and any other potential defects must be fixed before they are returned, so if such a product fails again, for any reason that can’t be clearly proven to be the user’s fault, twice within 90 days, three times within 365 days or five times during the entire warranty period, not counting the amount of time the product wasn’t in the customer’s possession, the manufacturer will be required to let the customer choose between a full refund and having the product replaced with a new one. Replacements should obviously be of an identical model if at all possible, and if that’s no longer possible then they should be clear upgrades, without requiring the customer to make do without any of the old product’s functionality.

Obviously, these are mere initial proposals, the minimum warranty potentially increasing even further after 2020. I see no reason why most electronics and similar products couldn’t be built to last ten years, and certainly see a clear need for furniture and other household items such as carpets to last decades without issues, and for building elements to last a lifetime, if not more.
Of course, all of this would also imply a certain amount of care and maintenance from the user, but currently the problem starts with the manufacturers and is firmly entrenched in the way society works, so that’s what needs to be changed first. There was a time when, in many parts of the world, things could be built to last, and advances in technology should make them last even longer, not less, so why shouldn’t we use laws to get this back on the right track?

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