Is France Making Planned Obsolescence Obsolete?
Spurred on by the often-lonely efforts of a young activist, Laetitia Vasseur, France has led the world in devising measures that force manufacturers to get back to yesteryear’s less wasteful model: making goods that are durable and repairable.
Written by YANN PERREAU
In 2017, just before the end of the year, a young, relatively unknown activist in France named Laetitia Vasseur filed a lawsuit against Apple, Inc., claiming that the company was deliberately slowing down older iPhones to encourage early replacements. The case fumbled its way through the courts for a few years, but in 2020, to many people’s surprise, Apple lost the suit. While the penalty imposed on Apple was relatively small—$27 million, equivalent to what the company reportedly makes in less than 3 hours—the French watchdog agency overseeing the case added a public spanking to its ruling. Apple had to put a statement its website, and keep it there for a month, admitting that it had “committed the crime of deceptive commercial practice…,” and had agreed to pay its fine.
In the years since that victory, Vasseur has relentlessly led or assisted a series of campaigns, all successful to one degree or another, to fight, and hopefully stop, companies from forcing French consumers to endure the insidious practice of planned obsolescence. Although she spent a few years inside government (working for a French senator), her campaigns have mostly been waged by a non-governmental organization she founded, appropriately called Halte à l’Obsolescence Programmée (or Stop Planned Obsolescence). While Vasseur would be the first to say her victories were only partial, their net result was unprecedented. Due almost entirely to her efforts, France was the first country in the world to state, as a matter of policy, that planned obsolescence is essentially banned within its borders.
Given that social change is inevitably incremental, that’s not a bad record for someone who is only 34 years old. And it begs a few obvious questions: How did she pull this off? Was it because of the tactics she employed, or her characteristics as a person and activist? Or were these advances made possible by unusual qualities in France’s government, and in French culture? Either way, we’re left with the bigger question: How much can other countries borrow from the steps that Vasseur, and her country, have taken to put the world on a less wasteful, more sustainable path?
“It all starts with this film,” Vasseur tells me. At the time, I was visiting Vasseur in her new home, in a small town in Southwestern France called Bègles, which lies just outside the city of Bordeaux and was set up to function as a commune. Vasseur is talking about a night in 2012 when she saw a documentary film titled “The Light Bulb Conspiracy” (a.k.a. “Pyramids of Waste”). First released in 2011, the film was soon broadcast in a number of different countries, won 14 awards, and is now somewhat legendary in environmental circles. “It was a turning point in my life,” she says.
To Alexandre Delaigue, a professor at France’s Lille University, planned obsolescence is nothing but a “conspiracy theory.”
The film opens with one of these moments that could happen to any one of us on a bad day. A man is confronted by a mysterious “error” message on his printer. To get it fixed, he goes to various repair stores. No one can tell him what’s wrong, and they all advise him to get rid of the old machine and replace it, saying that would be easier and cheaper than any repair. Nobody, though, can tell him what is exactly going on. Reluctant to give up, the man starts to query various blogs and specialists. Eventually, he discovers an embedded chip that forces his ink cartridge to stop printing after a set expiration date (a practice that allegedly continues to this day). The film goes on to explore other examples, such as the famous international cartel, founded in 1925, that conspired to limit the lifespan of lightbulbs; and Apple’s practice of gluing batteries inside Airpods, which prevented consumers from replacing them. It finishes lamenting the lack of regulation on the topic and its devastating impact on our planet, those two billion tons of solid waste, according to The World Bank, that we generate every year.
When Vasseur arrived at her office the next day, she told her boss: “We need to make a law against planned obsolescence in our country.” She was working at the time for Jean-Vincent Placé, a senator in the French Parliament. “Honestly, I didn’t know what it was at the time,” recalls Placé. “And I wasn’t convinced at the beginning. But I trusted Vasseur, so I told her: ‘OK, show me what we could do about it.’”
Vasseur soon started meeting with everyone she thought might inform her idea: consumer rights organizations, environmental NGOs (Les Amis de la Terre, Zero Waste, etc.), field experts, retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and trade associations. “These were not enthusiastic about my research,” she says, with a knowing smile. “Planned obsolescence doesn’t exist in our field,” they would tell her. Or, more blankly: “Our customers just don’t care about it.” The term was controversial then and still is today. Entrepreneurs often see it as a threat to their business and methods, a “conspiracy theory,” to quote economist Alexandre Delaigue, a professor at Lille University. “It’s a myth, nurtured by a left-wing ideology of degrowth,” he tells me over the phone. “These people are nostalgic for an old time that never existed, where machines would have been built to last.”
Some of yesteryear’s industrial pioneers—people such as Henry Ford, who did make machines built to last—might beg to differ on Delaigue’s argument that such a goal is nothing but a nostalgic myth. But his central question is valid: In a heavily populated, needy world, can any economy work that isn’t built on constant product churn? Then again, in a world also facing shrinking natural resources and growing pollution, can an economy based on throwaway goods work over the long term?
Vasseur was well-versed in these dueling visions, and from all reports, she knew how to use them to speak to entrepreneurs, CEOs, and other business leaders. She had studied business with a master’s degree in economics, marketing, and public from Paris-I Sorbonne. She also studied sociopsychology and behaviorism, the consumer mindset, and marketing. “I hated it, but I wanted to learn this art of screwing people up because it’s at the base of our current economic model.”
A lot of Vasseur’s values came from her grandfather, a working-class trade union leader who she says both inspired her and scared her. “My granddad learned everything by himself; he had read all of Emile Zola, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels. He was a man of commitment, a utopian who fought all his life for ideas. But he died depressed after witnessing the triumph of capitalism.” Vasseur has no interest in falling into the same trap. “I wanted to be more pragmatic in my fights,” she says. “I don’t want to die thinking: ‘I dreamt a world that never came.’”
By 2013, Vasseur was organizing workshops for the Green Party, to which she invited Congressmen, policymakers, and CEOs.
In 2013, when France’s Ministry of Economy (re-baptized as the “Ministry of Productive Recovery”) was working up a bill about “growth and purchasing power,” consumers’ rights were a noticeable non-priority.
Unfortunately, her efforts provoked immediate resistance. “There is no planned obsolescence in household appliances,” declared Gérard Salommez, President of Gifam (Interprofessional Group of Manufacturers of Household Equipment), to a magazine. Delaigue also joined in, writing in another newspaper to say, “This practice has never been seen on household appliances, whether large or small.” When I asked him to explain, he said that if a product breaks too soon, “I will simply decide not to buy from this brand anymore and choose another one next time. It would make no economic sense for a company, as it could benefit its competitors.”
Delaigue is right in theory; the problem is what has happened in practice. As shown in an earlier Craftsmanship article, “The Great Washing Machine Scam,” for most manufacturers of laundry machines, the lure of novelty—in this case, electronic functions that do little and break easily—has driven out quality and longevity. So here we go again. Yet another consumer market spoils the future because it can’t resist easy, short-term profits.
In decades past, both in Europe and the U.S., when it became clear that the free enterprise system had gone too far—that capitalism was causing more harm than good—government has often stepped in to staunch at least some of the bleeding. The U.S. made a number of such moves during the Progressive era, at the end of the 19th century and in the early decades of the 20th. Democratizing measures such as anti-trust laws, food safety regulations, trade unions to empower workers, and new political rights for women were all created during that time. Not so much now.
In France, government intervention remains more common, given the state’s history of involvement in many aspects of society and the economy, ever since the Revolution of 1789. Today, French workers still take to the streets to protect their rights; trade-unions are common in most industries; and food, drugs, and other product are routinely scrutinized, and banned if not safe. In an even bigger departure from government trends in the U.S., competition and anti-trust laws have been rigorously enforced since the 1950s.
In Vasseur’s view, our multiplying environmental breakdowns now require another era of ambitious reforms, both in France and beyond.
In early 2013, after months of research and interviews, Vasseur realized her country’s economic realities were much grimmer than she had imagined. “The current model in France allows cartels, oligopolies, or even de facto monopolies,” she writes in her 2017 book, “Du Jetable au Durable” (“From Disposable to Sustainable”). “Powerful lobbies influence policymakers, while fabricators and distributors have common interests to produce goods with a reduced lifespan.” Competition was not enough, she concluded; companies had to be pressured to change their way of producing, and the state had to be involved in this process.
France’s ruling government at the time was a coalition of Greens, Socialists, and Communists—a mixture that ordinarily would be sympathetic to her cause. So as Vasseur and her boss, Senator Placé, went from meeting to meeting, the tandem was surprised to get rather cool receptions—not hostility, exactly, more indifference and sometimes noticeable irritation.
At this point, French President François Hollande and his government had already been criticized for displeasing some of France’s most prosperous business leaders. As with their American counterparts, many had moved their operations to foreign countries to avoid paying taxes. So French government officials desperately wanted to appear business-friendly. Vasseur and Placé kept hearing, almost like a mantra, that only growth and consumption would allow the French economy to compete, and reduce its debts and massive unemployment. As an indication of the official perspective, France’s Ministry of Economy had been re-baptized as the “Ministry of Productive Recovery.” And its minister, Arnaud Montebourg, was already working up a bill about “growth and purchasing power.” Consumers’ rights were a noticeable non-priority.
During a Parliamentary debate, no one was able to muster an argument that supported the practice of planned obsolescence.
Placé remembers one moment in particular when Benoit Hamon, the Secretary of State in charge of Trade, Crafts, and Consumer Affairs, looked at them with obvious skepticism: “Do you think this topic of planned obsolescence would be of interest to anybody?” he asked. (The Minister of Ecology, Ségolène Royal, was more supportive, but relatively powerless.)
By March, 2013, Placé and his Green Party had decided to go it alone, and presented the Senate with a bill containing a number of measures to combat planned obsolescence: a warranty on every product that started at two years, and gradually increased to 5 years; access to spare parts within a month of a product’s release, and then for 10 more years; new methods to reuse or recycle electrical and electronic equipment; a legal framework defining planned obsolescence; penalties of up to 37,500 Euros and two years in prison for any business person found guilty of knowingly practicing planned obsolescence; and an information campaign to educate consumers about France’s new commercial landscape.
At the time, the Green Party, the bill’s most vociferous backers, represented only 10 percent of Parliament’s elected officials, so Placé took an indirect approach. Instead of bringing the planned-obsolescence bill to a vote, he called for a Parliamentary debate on the issue, so everyone would have to show their cards. “It was interesting to witness how they reacted,” Vasseur says. Although some in the Conservative Party voiced worries that the ban could offend businesses, no one was able to muster an argument that supported the practice of planned obsolescence. This created a soft spot, which Vasseur hoped might eventually become an opening.
In the following months, Vasseur and Placé continued to push on this soft spot as they met with colleagues, business leaders, and others with a stake in changing how French consumers were treated. For her part, Vasseur focused on not offending those who were resistant to the ban. Using all the business jargon she had learned in her studies, she gradually put industry leaders at ease. It’s a truism in politics that the business community’s objections to new regulations often aren’t about the new rules themselves, they’re about their fear that the rules will keep changing on them, and eventually make it impossible to profitably stay in business. But as Vasseur worked her magic, one business leader after another started to see ways to work with the ban.
Eventually, in March 2014, Vasseur and Placé got their opening. This was a time in France when the country’s more left-leaning parties—the Greens and Socialists—held a majority, and they were drafting a new law to speed France’s transition to a green-energy economy. (In something of an irony, the law was introduced by Benoit Hamon, the official who thought no one would care about planned obsolescence.) As the law was taking shape, Placé convinced his colleagues in Parliament to add a few provisions from his 2013 bill that he thought might cause the least offense. He chose the requirement of spare parts being made available, this time within 14 days of a product release; and a written statement, on fact sheets online and on in-store price tags, disclosing how long those parts would remain on the market. He also proposed the previous warranty period of at least two years, but offered to leave that to the manufacturer’s discretion. Placé’s tactic worked, and the law passed with his provisions intact.
Despite the win, Vasseur was disappointed. In her view, the new law and its provisions were nothing more than a collection of “tiny steps.” After all of Placé’s and Vasseur’s fervent appeals, there weren’t many provisions protecting the environment, and there was no language even mentioning planned obsolescence. “Bercy had blocked [Hamon],” she recalls, using a nickname for the Ministry of Productive Recovery.
Frustrated by politics, even before Placé got his amendments into the 2014 green energy bill, Vasseur was starting to feel alienated at work. While she had a good relationship with her boss, she disliked working with politicians, witnessing how “ego and power [and] greed take over the convictions of the best of them.” She found herself increasingly haunted by scenes from “The Light Bulb Conspiracy” that showed junkyards of electronic waste in the Global South. This stirred an old childhood dream of traveling the world, and a request for an unpaid leave. “Is there a better way,” she asked her boss, “to confront our ideas than with the reality of what people experience daily because of planned obsolescence?” Given his own politics, Placé didn’t have much rebuttal.
During months of travel, mostly in Southeast Asia, Vasseur reduced her belongings to the core necessities: two underwear, two t-shirts, and one pair of shoes. No phone, no computer. Not even a watch. “Disconnecting totally from mass consumption reconnected me to nature. That’s when I became an environmentalist.”
In January, 2014, Vasseur left on a trip that was supposed to take 8 months, but took twice as long. She started in Southeast Asia, traveling by bus or hitchhiking, and camping wherever she could. As she worked her way from one country to another (Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia, Nepal; then Mongolia, Russia, and back to Europe), she was continually struck by how people in “underdeveloped” countries were able to rely on themselves and nobody else, even if it meant having no electricity, gas, or technology. At one point, after spending several weeks with a native tribe on an isolated Indonesian island that lived entirely self-sufficiently, she decided to practice her own version of minimalism. Her backpack went from 16 to 6 kilos; her belongings were reduced to the core necessities: two underwear, two t-shirts, and one pair of shoes. No phone, no computer. Not even a watch. “The fact of disconnecting totally from mass consumption reconnected me to nature. That’s when I became an environmentalist.”
Returning home in late 2015 proved to be a challenge, but she also felt newly inspired. “After this trip, nothing could stop me!” she says. She started noticing citizen movements flourishing on all sides, joined an environmental group (Colibris), and got involved with a community called Ouishare, which claimed to follow the principles of a collaborative economy. Vasseur took Ouishare’s ambitions so seriously that she eventually enrolled in a Ph.D. program to study the group; then, to write her thesis, she holed up for 5 months in a Moroccan village. “I was immersed in the heart of a life based on the local economy, mutual aid, connection. It all made sense.” As she synthesized all she had learned, she concluded that Ouishare didn’t walk its talk, and actually practiced a kind of anarchy that eroded workers’ rights and led “to the commodification of everything.”
Over the next year, Vasseur threw herself into another ambitious model: the “circular economy.” This concept, which has been around in one form or another since the 1930s, envisions a society that recycles its goods so efficiently and so repeatedly that it essentially creates no waste. While a circular economy has never successfully moved from theory to a practice, Vasseur was undeterred; if anything, she believed she’d already been living its principles, proving the model could work. Ever since she left France for Asia, she hadn’t been buying clothes, beauty products, or any unnecessary goods. She had even created her own DIY deodorant and detergent with plant powders.
As Vasseur was busy trying to expand a circular economy beyond her own daily life, others were trying to expand what she had already started: a legal framework that could truly ban planned obsolescence.
After months of pressure from Vasseur’s colleagues during her absence, and from non-governmental activist groups (NGOs), in August, 2015, Ségolène Royal, who was still Minister of Environment, created another law to stimulate economic growth through green energy. This time, the law made planned obsolescence a formal offense, punishable by two years in prison and a fine of 300,000 euros. But even that wasn’t enough for Vasseur.
“What’s the point,” she said, when her friends called to congratulate her. Unlike the U.S. justice system, French courts rarely compensate winning plaintiffs. And, for the law banning planned obsolescence, any fees won would be paid to the state. “Nothing is going to change,” Vasseur said. “No individual will ever go with a broken kettle or computer to the Court of Justice to require its manufacturer to be fined by the State.”
The only effective way to make the new law deliver, she thought, was to organize as many people as possible and get them all to fight planned obsolescence. As it happened, just a month earlier, in July 2015, Vasseur had founded her non-profit devoted to stopping planned obsolescence (Halte A l’Obsolescence Programmée, or HOP). She started with a lawyer, a journalist, and her old friend Samuel Sauvage, a political advisor and expert in circular economy models. Five years later, HOP won its first big victory: the lawsuit against Apple for deceptive business practices.
“After the Apple case,” Vasseur told me, “I understood that there wouldn’t be a lot of clear-cut cases like this one.” If companies were ever going to create more durable and sustainable products on a large scale, they would have to want to do it for their own reasons. The trick, of course, is to figure out what those reasons are.
Vasseur knew that businesses like to market their good deeds, especially if it helps them stand out among their competitors. They just needed a credible way to do it, and Vasseur thought she might have an idea: a rating system on repairability, which would rank products on criteria such as how easily a product can be disassembled or reassembled, whether spare parts are available and affordable, and so on.
In 2022, France launched a program that encourages consumers to go to designated repair shops, where they can be assured of getting quality repairs and flat-rate price reductions.
To figure out a system that wouldn’t reveal jealously protected trade secrets, she met with distributors and manufacturers, convincing 30 companies to join the effort in a new Business Club for Durability. To build consensus, HOP organized colloquiums that included both NGOs and policymakers. “In the end, all the stakeholders had the same message, and that’s why it worked.”
France’s government got the message. In 2020, the Parliament voted to create a new Repairability Index, as an “anti-waste law for a circular economy.” Any product distributed in France must now visibly display its scores, determined by France’s National Agency for Ecological Transition (ADEME). The scores fall on an index that runs from 1 to 10, indicating how easy a product is to fix.
First applied to electronic devices (smartphones, laptops, televisions, etc.), the repairability index has recently been extended to dishwashers, vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and other home appliances. Camille Beurdeley, CEO of GIFAM, a trade association for home appliances, has found that manufacturing companies, eager for high rankings, “are already making their products more repairable and their spare parts more accessible.” According to a recent study, 51 percent of French consumers know about the index, and 7 out of 10 trust it.
Not surprisingly, this wasn’t nearly enough for Vasseur, who estimated that 70 percent of France’s consumers were not repairing their goods because of the costs involved. So in 2022, HOP organized another gathering: a “Durability Summit,” and invited 300 decision-makers, including a representative from the Ministry of Ecology who opened the event as its keynote speaker. Following the summit, HOP pushed for and won a new “mini-tax” on corporations to finance a Repair Fund. In response to public pressure, that December the French government started putting the fund to use. It launched a program that encourages consumers to go to designated repair shops, where they can be assured of getting quality repairs and flat-rate price reductions.
Months later, Vasseur again went a step further, and convinced Brune Poirson, the country’s Secretary of State to the Minister of Ecological and Solidarity Transition, and her colleagues, to broaden the repairability index to include ratings on the product’s durability through a “bundle of indices”: the length of a product’s warranty; its reliability, robustness, trustworthiness, upgradeability, and so on. Come 2024, any product sold in France will need to be scored on its durability.
Despite Vasseur’s stunning record, HOP hasn’t always succeeded. (In 2020, for example, HOP lost a complaint filed against Google about an advertising campaign that HOP argued encouraged “excessive consumption.”) Nonetheless, the organization Vasseur founded is now an undeniable force, even beyond France’s borders. HOP now has more than 70,000 members, an “expert committee,” and partners worldwide, such as the Canadian NGO Equities. “It is recognized as an international authority in the field,” says Thierry Libaert, a university professor and member of the European Economic and Social Committee, referring to HOP’s European Whitepaper, a public guide to end premature obsolescence in the European Union through 20 sustainable production and consumption proposals. The group’s annual reports cover everything from tech companies’ wrongdoings to the 350 “repair cafés” that opened recently in the country, where volunteers offer to repair your machine for free.
But what about Vasseur’s larger dream, to create a circular economy? While the odds against it are still tall, signs of progress are popping up here and there. According to a 2022 Tripartite study, the secondhand market has grown by 22 percent across the world as compared with 2020, generating $110 billion globally last year. In Europe, one in five people have already sold a mobile phone on the secondhand market; in France, just in 2021, 64 percent of the population bought at least one secondhand product.
Trends of this sort embolden people like Vasseur to argue that building products that last won’t limit job opportunities. As new professionals are needed to handle repair and more efficient recycling, “the 155,000 jobs currently generated by the repair of domestic goods in France could multiply,” she writes in her book.
Idealistic though Vasseur may be, she is not the only one who sees such a future. U.S. President Biden has been saying the same thing. Transitioning from fossil fuels to green-energy technologies won’t kill jobs, he argues; it will create them, on the largest scale seen since the late 1700s, when the world launched its first Industrial Revolution.
“Now that we have a prototype that works in France,” Vasseur told me, “we are working on extending the Durability Index to the European Union and the rest of the world.” While this sounds like wishful thinking, the progress Vasseur and her allies have made has not gone unnoticed. In 2021, the United Kingdom started requiring appliance manufacturers to offer spare parts for future repairs. In June 2023, the European Union joined the movement, imposing even stiffer rules on its 27 countries.
What about the elephant in the room: the U.S., which Vasseur calls “the cradle of consumerism”? It is, of course, doubtful that the current Republican U.S. Congress would ever support laws like France has. And the furthest Biden has dared to go, so far, is to issue a right-to-repair Executive Order, in 2021, calling on the Federal Trade Commission to enforce its own rules, preventing manufacturers from voiding warranties if consumers repair their goods.
As might be expected in America’s business-friendly culture, many industries, such as video game makers, have already requested an exclusion from Biden’s EO. Companies like Apple hide behind their much-maligned “repair program,” which is limited and expensive. And the FTC has yet to provide a definition for replacement components, or any criteria on cost or how long such parts must be available.
On the plus side for the U.S., by mid-November, 2023, legislation strengthening consumers’ rights to repair their own goods had been introduced in 45 states, six of which have already passed such laws. It might not be long before those laws start delivering results. Since American courts are more generous to plaintiffs than their French counterparts, class action lawsuits are both more common and more effective in the U.S. than they are in France. That of course gives American consumers (and American attorneys) a dose of encouragement that the French don’t have. At least not yet.
So there are reasons for hope, globally speaking. For any critics and pessimists, Vasseur simply quotes the Dalai Lama: “If you think you’re too small to change the world, spend a night with a mosquito, and you’ll see which of the two keeps the other from sleeping!”