Ghaith is in his first year of studies at McGill Law, and enjoys reading, playing piano, and pretending to be good at sports.
I was walking home in the rain on a cloudy Sunday afternoon with my brother Jihad, when my left shoe came apart. Hanging halfway off, the rubber sole would squish, clap and clomp with each wet step against the bottom of my shoe.
I was incensed. My shoes, not even three weeks old, were already entirely useless. Now, waddling in the rain, I had to either rush and buy a new pair before stores closed, or go to class on Monday barefoot. With an hour left before 5:00PM, there was no time to find a cobbler and repair it. Cursing designed obsolescence and our disposable culture, I bought the cheapest pair of replacement shoes I could find and resolved to get a refund for the company’s terrible handiwork. The only problem was that I had thrown out the receipt.
Fortunately, I discovered that consumer protection laws stood in my favour. Both the Code civil du Québec [Article 1727 of the Civil Code of Quebec] and Quebec’s Consumer Protection Act [s. 53] had provisions protecting consumers from latent defects in their products. I learned that even without a receipt or warranty, retailers must repair, exchange, or reimburse consumers for the defective products they sell. Perhaps, I thought, this could be an answer to the disposable culture and designed obsolescence plaguing today’s consumerism.
The quality deficit in today’s goods is more than an occasional nuisance; it’s a recurring cost for consumers and the environment. An increasing number of tech gadgets, kitchen appliances, and even motor vehicles are designed to fail. Without options to repair these products, consumers end up having to discard their broken item into a landfill and simply purchase another. Companies profit from this cycle of planned obsolescence at the expense of consumers and the planet.
Thanks to consumer protection law, however, in this case the cost would have fallen on the retailer. Rather than achieve the greater profits it sought by reducing its product’s durability, the shoe company would have been forced to rebate or reimburse me for its poor quality. Whether intended or not, consumer law manages to create a vulnerability in the policy of planned obsolescence.
Perhaps there is greater room to exploit consumer protection law’s potential. Designed obsolescence and disposable culture fuel one another. The former puts repairing defects out of reach of consumers, and the latter turns this into a norm. Slowing, let alone stopping, this vicious cycle is fraught with challenges. Manufactured needs and marketing are at the root of disposable culture, but curtailing advertising often conflicts with freedom of speech. A deeply set “lowest price wins” mentality enables designed obsolescence, but taxing shoddy products is often regressive in harming those who simply can’t afford anything better. Can greater consumer rights address these twin heads of consumerism?
Disposable culture may be too broad a problem for consumer laws to tackle, but fighting designed obsolescence is definitely within their reach. As we saw with defective goods (e.g., my broken shoes), consumer protection laws already penalize retailers for trying to take advantage of disposable culture. Items must last a reasonable period of time before they break, even without a warranty. Expanding what constitutes a “reasonable period of time” for reporting defects could go a long way in helping consumers challenge a retailer’s corner cutting. Similarly, expanding consumer law to include smaller, secondary defects (for example, those infamous “cosmetic tears” that appear on running shoes after only a few months’ use) could empower individuals to challenge other manufacturing flaws that they as consumers consider unjust. After enough consumer challenges, perhaps shoe companies would get tired of giving endless rebates and simply offer to repair the products they sold; or strike an agreements with local cobblers, or hold onto the broken shoes and find another use for them. Regardless of how they do it, such an expansion of consumer protection laws would make companies accountable for their own planned obsolescence.
On their own, these changes would not impose satisfactory limits on consumerism. But given the deadlock on this issue so far, they could very well be the only low-hanging fruit in sight.