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Too good for the bin: How repairing electrical goods benefits sustainability

MediaMarkt and Saturn are offering customers more and more repair services. Mobile phones can be repaired while you wait, fully automatic coffee machines can be fixed, and there’s even a call-out service for washing machines. But why do we carry out repairs in the first place? Because it boosts customer satisfaction and protects the environment. Both aspects are explained below using the example of a washing machine’s lifecycle.

According to a study carried out in 2016 by Öko-Institut e.V. and the University of Bonn on behalf of the UBA Federal Environmental Agency, the lifespan of electrical goods is decreasing. It found that the average length of time for which large household appliances such as washing machines, tumble dryers, refrigerators and freezers are used by their first owner declined between 2004 and 2013 from 14.1 to 13 years. The useful life of consumer electronics also shortened. Between 2007 and 2010, the average lifespan of flat screen TVs decreased from 5.7 to 4.4 years, and from 5.4 to 5.1 years for laptops.

Customers dissatisfied with goods with short service lives

There are many reasons why we don’t use electrical goods for as long as we used to. The high frequency of innovations in information and consumer electronics makes people want to have new devices. And even when it comes to large domestic appliances, a third of consumers are prompted to buy replacements merely by the desire for a better product.

At the same time, however, the share of large household appliances replaced within the first five years because they have developed a fault increased from 3.5% in 2004 to 8.3% in 2013. This is something that customers clearly don’t like, with 30% of consumers reporting in a survey that they were dissatisfied with the lifespan of electrical appliances.

Lebensdauer Elektrogeräte

Short-lifecycle products cause more pollution

From an ecological point of view, too, the trend towards ever shorter useful lives is a thorny issue. Be it laptops, TVs or washing machines, the sooner we dispose of a device, the greater both the harm to the environment and the consumption of resources in relation to the benefits it gives us.

Modern domestic appliances with built-in electronics contain valuable rare metals such as gold, tin, tantalum and copper. Obtaining these raw materials is costly, and often involves disregard for human rights and environmental damage in the countries of origin. Moreover, manufacturing household appliances consumes a lot of energy and causes greenhouse gas emissions.

Take the example of a washing machine. According to calculations by Öko-Institut, if a washing machine is used for just five years, its annual energy consumption and greenhouse gas potential are about 40% higher per year compared to a machine which lasts 20 years, even factoring in the improved energy efficiency of modern washing machines.

Repairs protect the environment and save money

OK, but with repair costs and electricity prices going up, is it really worth having an old washing machine fixed if it breaks down? Wouldn’t it make more financial sense to buy a new one which uses less electricity?

This was the subject of a study carried out in 2017 by consumer organization Stiftung Warentest. It concluded that whereas repairing a broken vacuum cleaner is usually more expensive than buying a new one, the converse is true as far as washing machines are concerned. Especially with high-end machines, extending their service life by having them repaired makes both economic and environmental sense. There are two reasons for this:

  • Making washing machines accounts for 25–50% of their overall environmental impact depending on how long they last. The shorter their service life, the bigger the share of their total environmental impact accounted for by the manufacturing phase.
  • Due to EU regulations, washing machines have been made far more energy and water efficient for many years. In future, therefore, their energy efficiency is only expected to improve slightly.

It’s therefore worth having certain appliances repaired if they become faulty, especially fully automatic coffee machines. These goods are often expensive and entail the consumption of large volumes of resources during production. What’s more, most faults are fairly straightforward to deal with. Therefore, having them repaired is the better option in financial and environmental terms.

MediaMarkt and Saturn offer customers various repair options: