The federal government should design a scheme which labels the expected lifespan of goods like fridges, washing machines, and mobile phones, according to a new Productivity Commission report on the ability for Australian consumers to repair and maintain their own devices.
The Productivity Commission has been tasked with delving into the right of Australians to extend the lifespan of their devices, and investigating whether third-party businesses are unfairly barred from repairing faulty, broken, or worn-out goods.
In its draft report, issued in June, the organisation found consumers face “barriers” when trying to repair their goods.
Consumer advocates say those difficulties can result in excess costs and waste when repairable products are discarded for newer models.
In its final report, handed down Wednesday, the Productivity Commission found consumer law is “reasonably comprehensive”, but still has significant room for improvement.
A key recommendation is for the government to plan and implement a pilot program which lists how long popular consumer goods are expected to last, thereby encouraging Australians to choose long-lasting products.
“For certain products, such as white goods and consumer electronics, many consumers are likely to value information about product durability (such as the average number of years before fault under normal use) or repairability (such as the availability of spare parts) when making purchasing decisions,” the report found.
Other sources of information — such as product reviews on comparison websites, and even the raw price of consumer goods — do not express “all the types of products or aspects of durability or repairability that are likely to be relevant to consumers.”
Such a program could feasibly emulate the Energy Rating Label system, which already lists the power efficiency of consumer whitegoods.
If successful, the pilot could be opened up to different types of consumer goods, the Productivity Commission said.
Consumer advocacy organisation CHOICE said such a system would help consumers choose products which will serve them well into the future.
“A durability label will give people the information they need at the time they need it most,” said Erin Turner, CHOICE’s director of campaigns.
Nearly nine out of ten consumers surveyed by CHOICE said they would appreciate a durability star system, she added.
Other major recommendations include the implementation of a “super” complaints process, enabling consumer groups to have their concerns and complaints prioritised by the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC).
The ACCC should be empowered to seek financial penalties against suppliers and manufacturers
that “fail to provide a remedy when required to do so,” on top of redress they may be ordered to pay impacted consumers.
Australia should also investigate alternative dispute resolution pathways, including the potential of establishing a separate ombudsman to “make enforceable decisions or facilitate enforceable outcomes.”
The Consumer Action Law Centre, which says 30% of the calls it receives pertain to ‘lemon’ cars, says that recommendation is the “next step” to securing a motor car ombudsman.
On the issue of premature product obsolescence, the report found that new mandatory design standards, or financial interventions like new taxes or subsidies, are “unlikely to have net benefits for the community.”
In its own submission to the Productivity Commission, the ACCC argued such measures would be unnecessary, as brands are unlikely to risk their reputation on deliberately short-lived products.
“Usually, it is in a manufacturer’s interest to try to expand their buyer base rather than try and force existing users to buy a replacement product,” the organisation noted at the time.
The federal government should also keep a close eye on the growing problem of e-waste, the report found, with waste processors potentially missing out on the ability to salvage valuable metals and rare earths from discarded goods.
“Any future product stewardship schemes should also include repair and reuse as options within their targets, where practical,” the report said.