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Posts Tagged ‘environmental market failure’

Why did so many people buy vacuum cleaners in August?

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that the quantity of retail sales in the UK was 3.9% higher in August than it had been in July. However strong price competition meant that the value of these sales increased by only 0.4%. What were the key factors driving the big increase in the quantity of sales? Was it simply the response of consumers to falling prices?

The data indicated that there was strong demand for goods associated with the housing market such as carpets, fridges and cookers. Spending on furniture increased very rapidly with sales rising by 24% over a 12 month period. Flat packed furniture proved to be particularly popular with consumers.

There was also strong demand for electrical goods and more specifically vacuum cleaners. The ONS estimated that a boom in the sale of vacuum cleaners in August was responsible for 25% of the increase in retail sales.

Why did the sales of vacuum cleaners increase so rapidly in August? Did UK households suddenly decide to keep their houses cleaner? The sales data shows that certain types of vacuum cleaners sold in much larger numbers than others.

For example, Tesco reported a 44% increase in the sales of 2,000 watt vacuum cleaners in the last two weeks in August while the Co-op reported an increase of 38%. Referring to the last weekend in August, the head of small domestic appliances at the on-line retailer stated that

We saw a huge surge in sales of corded vacuums over 1,600 watts over the weekend, with sales quadrupling.

There were also reports that a significant number of customers were buying more than one vacuum cleaner with these larger motors.

The key reason for the sudden surge in demand was the implementation of new regulations by the European Union as part of its energy efficiency directive. The ultimate objective of this directive is to reduce climate change. The specific policy that appears to have had such a big impact on consumers in the UK was the ban imposed on firms in the EU from making or importing vacuum cleaners that have motors above 1600 watts. This ban came into effect on the 1st September 2014.

A spokesperson for the consumer group Which? stated in August that

If you’re in the market for a powerful vacuum, you should act quickly, before all the models currently sell out. A Best Buy 2,200-watt vacuum costs around £27 a year to run in electricity – only around £8 more than the best scoring 1,600-watt we’ve tested.

The EU plans to reduce the maximum permitted wattage in vacuum cleaners to 900 watts in 2017. Restrictions have already been imposed on bigger electrical appliances such as televisions, washing machines and refrigerators. The EUs Ecodesign directive may also be extended to a range of smaller electrical appliances such as toasters and hair dressers in the future. It’ll be interesting to see if consumers respond in the same way to regulations imposed by the EU in the future.

Ten days left to vacuum up a powerful cleaner BBC (21/08/14)
Housing boom, food discounting and vacuum ban boost UK spending The Guardian, Larry Elliott, Phillip Inman, Lisa Bachelor (18/9/14)
UK retail sales boosted by vacuum cleaner sales BBC (18/9/14)
Retailers sell out of vacuum cleaners ahead of EU ban The Telegraph, Elliot Pinkham (30/8/14)
Power surge! Fourfold rise in sales of super vacuums: Some customers buying two or more models to beat new EU regulations Daily Mail, Andrew Levy (1/9/14)
Energy Efficiency Directive European Commission (accessed on 24/9/14)
Vacuum cleaner splurge pushes up UK retail sales The Guardian, Phillip Inman (18/9/14)


  1. Using a demand and supply diagram, illustrate what has happened in the market for high wattage vacuum cleaners in August. Pay particular attention in your answer to the role of expectations.
  2. What did your previous diagram predict would happen to the price of high wattage vacuum cleaners in August? Did this in fact happen?
  3. A fully informed rational consumer may purchase a higher wattage vacuum cleaner if they consider that the improvement in cleaning performance is greater than the extra cost of purchasing and using the cleaner. Can you provide an economic rationale for banning the sale of these machines in these circumstances?
  4. Using a demand and supply diagram illustrate the impact of banning the sale of a product in a competitive market.
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A modern tragedy of the commons

In many parts of the world, life in the oceans is dying out. The term ‘dead zones’ is used to describe seas that are devoid of marine life. And these zones are growing in size and number.

It’s not just the decline in fish and other marine species that’s worrying environmentalists and many others; it’s a growth in rubbish. Part of this is caused by natural disasters, such as the 2011 Tsunami in Japan that washed huge amounts of debris into the Pacific Ocean. But much of it is caused by rubbish carried down rivers and into the seas, or rubbish jettisoned from ships. The problem is particularly acute in areas of the oceans where currents circulate the rubbish into huge rubbish dumps. There are two such areas either side of Hawaii in the Pacific. Both are vast.

The first article below tells the tale of Newcastle (Australia) yachtsman Ivan Macfadyen. He completed the 2013 Melbourne to Osaka double handed yacht race earlier this year as skipper of his yacht Funnelweb and then went on to bring the yacht home to Australia via America and race the famous Trans-Pac Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Hawaii along the way.

Exactly 10 years before, when [he] had sailed exactly the same course from Melbourne to Osaka, all he’d had to do to catch a fish from the ocean between Brisbane and Japan was throw out a baited line.

“There was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn’t catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice,” Macfadyen recalled. But this time, on that whole long leg of sea journey, the total catch was two. No fish. No birds. Hardly a sign of life at all.

After reaching Osaka in Japan, they sailed on to San Francisco via Hawaii.

“After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” Macfadyen said. “We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. It was pretty sickening.”

“I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.”

In place of the missing life was garbage in astounding volumes.

As economists, you should readily understand that here we have a case of over-exploited common resources – a Tragedy of the Commons of epic proportions. One ship’s rubbish may make a tiny difference, but when the cost of dumping is near zero and when the oceans are not policed, what is rational for a single ship becomes a disaster when repeated tens of thousands of times by other ships

Again, overfishing is the result of seemingly rational behaviour by crews of individual fishing boats. But as Economics (8th edition) points out on pages 328–30:

Common resources are not owned but are available free of charge to anyone. Examples include the air we breathe and the oceans for fishing. Like public goods, they are non-excludable. For example, fishing boats can take as many fish as they are able from the open seas. There is no ‘owner’ of the fish to stop them. As long as there are plentiful stocks of fish, there is no problem.

But as more people fish the seas, so fish stocks are likely to run down. This is where common resources differ from public goods. There is rivalry. One person’s use of a common resource diminishes the amount available for others. This result is an overuse of common resources. This is why fish stocks in many parts of the world are severely depleted, why virgin forests are disappearing (cut down for timber or firewood), why many roads are so congested and why the atmosphere is becoming so polluted (being used as a common ‘dump’ for emissions). In each case, a resource that is freely available is overused. This has become known as the tragedy of the commons.

… When I use a common resource, I am reducing the amount available for others. I am imposing a cost on other people: an external cost. If I am motivated purely by self-interest, I will not take these external costs into account.

Try doing some research to find out just what has been happening to the state of the oceans in recent years.

The ocean is broken Newcastle Herald (Australia), Greg Ray (18/10/13)
Our Planet Is Exploding With Ocean Dead Zones Business Insider, Dina Spector (26/6/13)
Health of oceans ‘declining fast’ BBC News, Roger Harrabin (3/10/13)
Chaos in the Oceans Huffington Post, Evaggelos Vallianatos (14/10/13)
Ocean Health Suffers from Overfishing, Index Finds Live Science, TechMedia, Douglas Main (16/10/13)

Dead zone (ecology) Wikipedia
Common Fisheries Policy Wikipedia
Reform of the Common Fisheries Policy Fisheries DG, European Commission
Ocean Health Index OHI


  1. How does a common resource differ from a public good?
  2. What is the equilibrium use of a common resource? Demonstrate this with a diagram.
  3. What is the socially efficient use of a common resource such as a fishing ground?
  4. In what ways have modern ‘industrial’ methods of fishing compounded the problem of the overuse of fishing grounds?
  5. What criteria, other than social efficiency, could be used to determine the optimal use of a common resource?
  6. Explain how the Common Fisheries Policy of the EU works. Are there any lessons that can be learned by other groups of countries from the experience of the CFP?
  7. Are there any ‘good news’ stories about the state of any of the oceans? If so, to what extent are they the result of deliberate human action?
  8. To what extent is the Internet a common resource?
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Environmental market failure

No market is perfect and when the market mechanism fails to deliver an efficient allocation of resources, we say the market fails and hence there is justification for some government intervention. From a monopolist dominating an industry to a manufacturing firm pumping out pollution, there are countless examples of market failure.

The Guardian is creating a guide to climate change, covering areas from politics to economics. The problem of climate change has been well documented and this blog considers a particular issue – the case for climate change or the environment as a market failure. In many cases just one market failure can be identified, for example an externality or a missing market. However, one of the key problems with climate change is that there are several market failures: externalities in the form of pollution from greenhouse gases; poor information; minimal incentives; the problem of the environment as a common resource and the immobility of factors of production, to name a few. Each contributes towards a misallocation of resources and prevents the welfare of society from being maximised.

When a market fails, intervention is justified and economists argue for a variety of policies to tackle the above failures. In a first-best world, there is only one market failure to tackle, but in the case of the environment, policy must be designed carefully to take into account the fact that there are numerous failings of the free market. Second-best solutions are needed. Furthermore, as the problem of climate change will be felt by everyone, whether in a developed or a developing country, international attention is needed. The two articles below are part of the Guardian’s ultimate climate change guide and consider a huge range of economic issues relating to the problem of environmental market failure.

Why do economists describe climate change as a ‘market failure’? Guardian, Grantham Research Institute and Dunca Clark (21/5/12)
What is the economic cost of climate change? Guardian (16/2/11)


  1. What is meant by market failure?
  2. What are the market failures associated with the environment and climate change? In each case, explain how the issue causes an inefficient allocation of resources and thus causes the market to fail? You may find diagrams useful!
  3. What is meant by the first-best and second-best world?
  4. What does a second-best solution aim to do?
  5. Using diagrams to help your explanation, show how a tax on pollution will have an effect in a first best world, where the only market failure is a negative externality and in a second best world, where the firm in question is also a monopolist.
  6. What solutions are there to the problem of climate change? How effective are they likely to be?
  7. Does the need to tackle climate change require international co-operation? Can you use game theory to help your explanation?!
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