“These shoes are life-long companions,” says shoemaker René Hess referring to old Swiss army shoes. As a shoemaker who has been working in Winterthur for over 25 years he knows all about long and short product life cycles. Nowadays, even expensive shoes often do not last very long. Manufactured using fast injection-moulding technology, many mid-soles have insulation materials made of special plastic, which quickly becomes brittle and cracks. Moreover, the entire shoe is often processed in such a way that it is difficult to separate the individual components. Hess increasingly finds himself telling customers that it is not worth their while financially to mend their shoes. And yet, from an environmental perspective, regular repairs should be the best solution for products like shoes which can be used for long periods.
Replacement pays in many cases
This is not the case with all products, however. Sometimes replacing something with a new product is the best option. So when is it better to replace an old appliance with a new one to protect the environment? Anders Gautschi, a consumption and products expert from the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN), says: “It is important to take the environmental impact generated over the entire life cycle into account, that is during the manufacture, use and disposal of a product.” Hence the answer to this question depends on whether a product generates the greatest impact during production – for example through the consumption of energy, materials and water – or whether its impact is greater during its use – for example, in the case of a continuously running fridge. How the product is disposed of is also important. Gautschi was involved the compilation of a report on the optimisation of the life cycle and operating life of products by the FOEN. One of the insights arising from the report is that we should hold on to products that have a minimal impact on the environment when in use. This applies to furniture and shoes. However, if a product also has a large ecological footprint during its use or operation, its replacement with a new model can offer certain advantages. This applies to electrical appliances like fridges.
Nevertheless, it is not essential that old fridges be disposed of immediately. If a fridge is in constant use in the kitchen, it makes sense to get a new one. However, it can still provide a good service if it is installed in the cellar for occasional use, e.g. parties. According to Gautschi, the principle behind this approach is that “if an appliance generates a greater environmental impact during use than it would during production and disposal, replacing it with an ecologically superior model makes sense.”
Life Cycle Assessments: transparency needed
This rule of thumb can help – as can basic common sense. However, as Raffael Wüthrich from the Stiftung für Konsumentenschutz, SKS (Foundation for Consumer Protection) sees it, one important requirement is lacking: transparency. He criticises the fact that: “With some products it is often unclear how long they can be used on average, how long replacement parts are available for and whether the products can actually be repaired.” Information about environmental impacts is only available for some products in the form of energy labels. However, a life cycle assessment (LCA) needs more than an energy certificate.
A lot of processes have now been initiated to enable companies to identify the data they need for life cycle assessments and how they can produce the assessments on the basis of standard rules. At European level, in particular, a lot of intensive work is being carried out on developing general conditions for LCAs. And it’s not a moment too soon as a backlog exists for many products. If price is the main concern, product developers focus primarily on cheap materials and production. However, a higher price does not always provide a guarantee of superior quality. Concepts like ecodesign help to incorporate ecological efficiency into the design of products. As FOEN expert Gautschi sees it, the roadmap has been clearly defined: “Product developers must be given the necessary knowledge and skills during training and consumers must be as well informed as possible,” he says. This also means involves developing products in a modular way so that individual components are easy to replace.