Long product use spans between claim and reality – First results of the 2019 survey

Year after year – a new device

During the Christmas season, the electronics industry is booming and under many Christmas trees you will find the latest smartphone model or the LED TV with an even bigger screen. Especially at Christmas and especially for gifts from the entertainment or ICT sector, the new one often replaces a device that is still functional. The purchase is not based on the necessity to use a functioning device, but on the need to treat yourself and your loved ones. And that’s where the newest of the new is just good enough. However, the life or use span of consumer goods is also outside the Christmas season not necessarily limited by their technical characteristics. A recent survey conducted by the TU Berlin and Fraunhofer IZM has examined the influence consumers have on the life of appliances. The survey highlights the importance of the durability of consumer goods compared to the latest technical standards and the role of appliance repair.

Long product life cycles – ecologically relevant and socially desirable

Modern electronics are produced with a high use of resources and a considerable output of emissions. The longer they live, the more likely it is that these ecological costs will be amortised and the better the life cycle assessment of a device will be. If consumers are asked about their attitudes and intentions, there is reason for hope for the LCA, because using devices for as long as possible is socially desirable. This is the result of a recent representative survey conducted by the Department of Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research in Electronics at the TU Berlin and Fraunhofer IZM. Within the framework of the study, the research group “Obsolescence as a Challenge for Sustainability” examined expectations and experiences with the use and lifetimes of electronic products, especially smartphones and washing machines. The majority of the population (67%) feel obliged to use devices for as long as possible, want to make a contribution to the environment (73%) and consider the longevity of devices to be an important social value (57%).

The reported use spans for devices – referring to the previously owned device – show that there may also be a trend towards longer use.

For example, a comparison with a survey conducted by the TU Berlin in 2017 shows that the use spans of smartphones have increased slightly. If a smartphone was being used for an average of 2.3 years in 2017, the average is now 2.7 years. Nevertheless, in many cases the reason for buying a new one is not a defective old device: 67% buy a new smartphone and 35% buy a new washing machine, even though the old device still works. There are many reasons for this, a comparison of the devices shows clearly: especially with smartphones there is a strong desire to be up-to-date. In addition, there is the temptation of new offers.

Newism – The belief that the new is better than the old

Newism is defined as the belief that the new is better than the old. The new is seen as desirable, it is socially accepted and conveys positive feelings. The desire for something new and the high importance of novelty enhances the value of the new over the continued use of the existing devices.

Especially in the case of smartphones, new devices are associated with technological improvements. The majority of those surveyed (54%) bought a new smartphone because new models are more powerful. But many people also simply enjoy a new device (48%). One third are tempted by new models and last but not least, one fifth of them are influenced by their circle of friends. “In the material culture of our society, novelty has a high value,” explains Prof. Melanie Jaeger-Erben, the head of the research group. “Many consider the rapid technological change to be inevitable, and the latest devices allow people to show that they can keep up with the pace. This orientation is reinforced by structural easements for new purchases and barriers to prolonging the use of the devices”.

The normative power of structures

The context of the action or the structural conditions can have a great influence: Which courses of action are facilitated, which are made more difficult? In which direction are you being “nudged”? For example, 37% of those surveyed had a new smartphone as part of a contract with their network operator, while one third were motivated to buy a new one by a favourable offer. If something suddenly breaks, it is for most people normal and the easiest to buy a new device immediately. Only with some appliances, such as the washing machine or the television, does a third check the option of a repair. Only very few try to get by without the appliance for the time being. The low repair rate may also be related to the fact that only 40% of those surveyed say they have a repair provider nearby. A new device, on the other hand, is always available at any time thanks to online shopping.


Between aspiration and reality – possibilities to influence sustainable product use spans

Keeping and using devices for a long time can be called a social norm. Almost three-quarters of those surveyed state that their parents have already taught them to use devices for a long time. However, a comparison of the different age groups shows that the influence of this norm may be declining: While 84% of those over 60 agree, only half of those aged 18-29 agree. 28% of the respondents between 18 and 29 are only partially taught this value, 24% not at all. Knowledge about the maintenance and repair of equipment was also more likely to be imparted in the homes of the older generations. Thus it can happen that on average only a third of them state that they know how to look after and maintain their own smartphone and washing machine so that they last longer. Only very few of those surveyed also make use of other ways of influencing their own needs, such as repairing a device themselves or formulating their requirements for a device via reviews or chat forums on the Internet. As a preliminary conclusion, Prof. Jaeger-Erben emphasizes: “In order to promote a more sustainable consumption of electronic devices, no appeals to conscience or sense of responsibility are needed. Rather, it is necessary to reduce the costs of action for longer use spans. Facilitating repair as well as better and more practical ways of care and maintenance are two possibilities among many to remove barriers and facilitate the appreciation of the used.”

Information on the study design

Representative personal interview survey of 1,000 people aged 18 and over, carried out in summer 2019. The study is part of the research work of the junior research group “Obsolescence as a Challenge for Sustainability – Causes and Alternatives”, a joint project of TU Berlin and the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration. The group is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research within the framework of the Social-ecological Research priority area.


Further documents (coming soon):

  • Powerpoint with further results
    detailed description as OHA-Paper