Bishop of St Albans – technological goods should be designed to last longer

On 3rd March 2016 the House of Lords considered a questions for short debate tabled by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, “To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to promote the principles of the circular economy, based on the re-use, repair, refurbishment and recycling of existing materials and products, to protect the environment, give new growth opportunities and avoid waste.” The Bishop of St Albans, Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate:


Bishop St Albans June 2015The Lord Bishop of St Albans: My Lords, my thanks also go to the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch, for this important debate on the circular economy.

I want to spend just a few moments highlighting the economic and environmental impact of planned obsolescence—this has already been referred to —particularly in technological goods, which we know is used by companies to drive growth and ensure a steady supply of return customers. It is a business model that relies on technological products needing to be upgraded and/or replaced at regular intervals, whether because they go out of fashion, have a limited lifespan, or are difficult or expensive to repair.

The model of consumption of regular upgrading and replacing is so deeply ingrained within our national consciousness that nowadays we hardly even question it. We toss out the old and bring in the new at an alarming rate, and, of course, at great cost to the individual customer and, indeed to the environment. Not only that but it is incredibly wasteful. It is estimated that there are probably 125 million old mobile phones languishing in the top drawers of British households, many of which contain metals that are becoming increasingly scarce in the natural world. From every angle, whether economic or environmental, this approach to consumption is simply not sustainable in the long term, not least when we look at population projections and the way in which other communities and nations are expected to modernise and therefore need modern technology.

What we ultimately need is a fundamental shift in manufacturing and design, so that products are once again designed for longevity, and where upgrades and repairs can be done without needing to buy replacement goods. This, of course, will come about only with pressure from consumers. Therefore, it is encouraging to see a number of green shoots emerging in this regard. I have previously highlighted in this Chamber the work of the Dutch social enterprise, Fairphone. However, there are surely ways in which government can incentivise manufacturers to move in this direction. I know there are movements in this regard at both domestic and European level. I was particularly interested to read of French laws that require manufacturers in France to inform consumers how long products will last and guarantee them for two years. Can the Minister inform the house whether this is something that Her Majesty’s Government have looked at and whether we might learn from that, and build upon it, as we seek to address this crucial area?


Lord Gardiner of Kimble (Con): [extract]:  I was particularly interested in what the right reverend Prelate said about French regulation. We will certainly be looking at that example, and if I have anything further to report I will get back to him as speedily as I can.