Product Life Trade-Offs: What If Products Fail Early?

A. C. H. Skelton, J. M. Allwood

Increasing product life allows the embodied emissions in products to be spread across a longer period but can mean that opportunities to improve use-phase efficiency are foregone. In this paper, a model that evaluates this trade-off is presented and used to estimate the optimal product life for a range of metal-intensive products. Two strategies that have potential to save emissions are explored: (1) adding extra embodied emissions to make products more sturdy, increasing product life, and (2) increasing frequency of use, causing early product failure to take advantage of improvements in use-phase efficiency. These strategies are evaluated for two specific case studies (long-life washing machines and more frequent use of vehicles through car clubs) and for a range of embodied and use-phase intensive products under different use-phase improvement rate assumptions. Particular emphasis is placed on the fact that products often fail neither at their design life nor at their optimal life. Policy recommendations are then made regarding the targeting of these strategies according to product characteristics and the timing of typical product failure relative to optimal product life.