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 will be the latest smartphone model or the LED TV with an even larger screen. Especially at Christmas and especially for gifts from the entertainment or ICT sector, the new one often replaces a still functional device. The purchase is not based on the necessity of using a functioning device, but on the need to do something good for oneself and one’s loved ones. And that’s where the latest product is just good enough. However, the life or use span of consumer goods is not always limited by their technical properties, even outside the Christmas season. A recent survey conducted by the TU Berlin and Fraunhofer IZM has investigated the influence consumers have on the life of appliances. The survey shows how relevant the durability of consumer goods is in comparison to the latest technical standards and the role of repair.

Long product life spans – ecologically relevant and socially desirable

Modern electronics are produced with a high use of resources and a considerable emission of emissions. The longer they live, the sooner these ecological costs are amortised, the better the life cycle assessment of a device. If consumers are asked about their attitudes and intentions, there is reason for hope for the LCA, as using devices for as long as possible is socially desirable. This is the result of a recent representative survey conducted by the Department for 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%) feels obliged to use devices for as long as possible, wants to make a contribution to the environment (73%) and considers the durability 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 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 the broken old device: 67% buy a new smartphone and 35% a new washing machine, even though the old device still works. The reasons for this are manifold, a comparison of the devices makes it clear: 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 the belief that the new is better than the old. The new is regarded as desirable, it is socially accepted and communicates positive feelings. The desire for something new and the high significance of novelty enhances the value of the new over the further use of the existing device.

Especially in the case of smartphones, new devices are also associated with technological developments. The majority of respondents (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 those surveyed 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 equipment enables people to show that they can keep up. This orientation is reinforced by structural easements for new purchases and barriers to prolonging the use of devices”.

The normative power of structures

The context of an action or the structural conditions can have a great influence: Which courses of action are being facilitated, which ones made more difficult? In which direction are you being “nudged”? A 37% of those surveyed had a new smartphone as part of a contract with the network operator. One third were motivated to buy a new phone by a favourable offer. If something suddenly breaks, it is normal and the easiest way for most people to buy a new device. Only with some appliances, such as the washing machine or the television, at least a third check the option of repairing it. Very few try to get by without it 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 of influencing sustainable product use spans

Keeping and using devices for a long time can be called a social norm. Almost three quarters of those surveyed also state that their parents have 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 respondents between 18 and 29 are only partially taught this value, and 24% did not learn it 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 state that they know how to care for and maintain their own smartphone and washing machine so that they last longer. Only very few of those surveyed exercise additional influence, such as repairing a device themselves or formulating their needs 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, there is no need for appeals to conscience or sense of responsibility. Instead, it is necessary to reduce the handling costs 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 increase the appreciation of the used device”.

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.


Further documents (coming soon):

  • Powerpoint with further results
  • detailed description as OHA-Paper