Have you heard about planned obsolescence? It’s an industry practice of designing products with limited lifespans (thus driving sales). It explains why electronics are now the fastest growing source of waste in the world, with big impacts on our planet. Social entrepreneur Laetitia Vasseur founded STOP Planned Obsolescence to reverse this trend (Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée — HOP, in French). Ashoka’s Hanae Baruchel caught up with her to learn more about her movement’s activation of 70,000 consumers and 30 companies across France driving better policies and practices to build tech that lasts.
Hanae Baruchel: Laetitia — let’s start with the basics. What is planned obsolescence?
Laetitia Vasseur: At HOP, we talk about three types of “premature” obsolescence because in France, planned obsolescence is a crime with a very specific legal definition. The first type is technical obsolescence. That’s when a spare part is designed to break easily or when a chip is inserted in a product to make it stop working after a specific amount of time. Software obsolescence is the second type. The hardware might still work perfectly, but the software makes it obsolete, for example when you update an operating system that breaks or slows down your device. And the third type is cultural or psychological obsolescence. That’s a marketing strategy to make people think they should change their devices even though they still work properly.
Baruchel: This phenomenon dates back at least to the 1920s when the light bulb industry agreed to deliberately limit the lifespan of all lightbulbs to 1000 hours. You saw a documentary about it that ends with a call to action to end planned obsolescence – and you took it quite literally. Why?
Vasseur: It made me very angry both from ecological and consumer protection perspectives. Eighty percent of the environmental footprint of a product comes from manufacturing. And electronics are the fastest growing source of waste in the world. That’s why it’s essential to extend the lifespan of our devices, and give them second and third lives. Recycling alone isn’t the answer because not everything can be recycled and it is very energy intensive.
So I started to look for ways to contribute. At the time, I was working in the French Senate as a Parliamentary Assistant to a Green Party MP. I convinced him to let me work on this problem, which led us to introduce a law against planned obsolescence. It slowly made its way through the legislature and in 2015, France became the first country in the world to recognize planned obsolescence as a crime.
Baruchel: You eventually decided to leave the Senate to focus on this issue fully.
Vasseur: Yes. I knew that intentional planned obsolescence would be hard to prove legally, but that without putting the law to use it would have no teeth. So, I created an association to collect cases of planned obsolescence reported on by consumers. I knew we could make our case only if we grouped our complaints. In 2017, a U.S. study came out revealing a lot of complaints about iPhones that stopped working properly. The culprit was an iOS update, released right before a new iPhone hit the market. For us this was a clear cut case of planned obsolescence to drive new sales. We took Apple to court in France and won. They were fined €25 million and had to disclose their wrongdoing on their website. Making it public was really important for us because brands care about their image. This was a reputational blow for Apple.
Baruchel: So, by now the rules of the games had started to change. Planned obsolescence was a crime, and companies started to see there were consequences when they broke the law. But you didn’t stop there?
Vasseur: As much as this was a victory, I also knew that there wouldn’t be a lot of clear cut cases like this one. We needed to create an incentive for companies to extend the lifespan of their products. So we developed the French Reparability Index. The index scores devices like computers, smartphones, washing machines, and other household items on five criteria – like how easily it can be disassembled or reassembled, whether spare parts are available and affordable, etc. It helps to orient consumers, and it also makes companies compete for a higher reparability score. Disclosing a products’ reparability score is now mandatory throughout France – much like nutrition labels on processed foods.
Baruchel: As you point out, even if something can be repaired, it’s often so expensive that people don’t bother.
Vasseur: Yes. 70 percent of people don’t repair their devices because of the costs associated. So we created an innovative way to finance repairs by levying a mini-tax on corporations to finance France’s Repair Fund, launched nationally in December 2022. It’s really easy for consumers. All they have to do is go to a licensed QualiRépar repair shop to access repairs at a cheaper price. For example, people will get a €25 discount on smartphone repairs, or €45 off when it comes to laptops. The repair shops are themselves paid partially through this fund.
Baruchel: Are these measures being adopted elsewhere in Europe?
Vasseur: It’s underway. The European Union plans to make a reparability index mandatory across the Zone, which is great news. The only big downside is that their index won’t take the price of spare parts into account. From our standpoint if something is too expensive to repair, it’s not really reparable.
We’ve had another major victory in France which take things one step further. In 2024, all products covered under French Reparability policies will also need to be scored on their “durability”. This new mandatory index will incorporate criteria on reparability but also trustworthiness, robustness and upgradeability. We plan to export the Durability Index to the rest of Europe, and internationally.
Baruchel: You now have a coalition of 70,000 French consumers who are invested in this cause as well as an association of 30 or so companies in France who want to lead their industries and make products that last. What’s next for these groups?
Vasseur: We try to federate as much as possible – there really is strength in numbers. With our consumer coalition, we always want to protect and advocate for them, but we also want to build new consumer mindsets and a culture of durability. That’s why we created a website called Durable Products that provides people with advice and reparability resources near them. Similarly with companies: it’s important for us to show that building the circular economy and fighting planned obsolescence is not just for “angry citizens” or “activists”. Companies have a crucial role to play in building the alternatives and our corporate Durability Club demonstrates that some companies are ready for this shift and leading the way. We help them get there.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.