Planned obsolescence is the intentional design of a product to have an artificially limited lifespan. The first major example of this could be seen in the formation of the Phoebus Cartel in 1924 (https://www.simplelighting.co.uk/knowledge-hub/history-pre-war-lightbulb-manufacture/). The cartel was made up of a number of major manufacturers including Osram, Philips, and General Electric. They’re goal was simple – reduce the lifespan of electric bulbs to 1000 hours in order to maximise profits. This forced consumers to have to buy new light bulbs regularly. Of course, the public were not informed of this agreement.
The intentional change of the style of a product can be used to create the illusion that the new product is better than the previous one. Clothing and accessories are a common example of this. One year, small sunglasses are considered fashionable, then the very next year, larger ones are all the rage.
Difficult to Repair
Some companies intentionally make it hard to repair their device.
Apple’s cash cow, the iPhone, is notoriously hard to repair. This causes an artificial scarcity (https://youtu.be/JFieXFWotIc) of skilled technicians which has the effect of increasing maintenance costs for obsolete phones.
Some products are designed with low-quality parts in mind, especially in key areas. Manufacturers know that making critical components from cheap plastics or metals will result in a significant reduction in lifespan. Toy manufacturers are infamous for this. Sure, their toys look great on the outside, but they often contain cheap plastic cogs in vital locations. What happens when a four-year-old’s motorised train stops working? “Dad! I want a new one!”
Many computer software and hardware companies are guilty of planned systematic obsolescence where they make their software or hardware incompatible, or difficult to use with future operating systems. Just last night I was trying to get my old scanner to work on my new Windows 10 laptop. It took me about three hours to work out a fix, and I’ve worked in IT. The average person would have given up and just bought a new scanner. The scanner is in good condition, so there is no physical reason to throw it away, however the manufacturers don’t want me to use the same scanner for 20 years, do they now?
Some devices have a pre-programmed lifespan. They do not rely on some random part to fail like a toy with a cheap cog inside, but instead are designed to fail on a particular date, or after a certain number of uses. Hewlett Packard had to go to court over designing some of their inkjet printers and cartridges to automatically shut down on a particular expiration date, even though ink remained (http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2010/11/hp-inkjet-printer-lawsuit-reaches-5-million-settlement/index.htm). Users were being forced to go out and buy costly ink cartridges. The case was settled for about $5 million, but each plaintiff could only receive a maximum of $6. Wow, thanks Hewlett Packard.
The manufacturers and producers benefit the most from planned obsolescence. By creating items that need to be replaced often, they can ensure demand. One could also argue that this in turn creates more jobs.
Continually replacing items rather than repairing them can cause a lot of waste and pollution, which has a negative impact on the environment. Planned obsolescence is inefficient. It’s wasting workers’ time and customers’ money. If customers work out that a company is intentionally making goods that break down, they might to turn to a company that sells more durable goods.
As long as we live in a capitalist economy, there will always be planned obsolescence.
And there lies the problem. As long as companies’ number one goal is to make money, we will forever be victim to buying junk that won’t last more than a few years. Ideally, we would live in a society where money is no longer required, or no longer useful. Companies would take pride in making long-life, durable, good quality machines that function well. Of course they would! They wouldn’t want to waste hundreds of man-hours fixing crappy devices. If you haven’t already seen it, go to Resource Based Economy (https://youtu.be/D2a80qCYf7A) and watch the video The Choice is Ours by Jacque Fresco (https://youtu.be/Yb5ivvcTvRQ). It outlines a possible society where people focus on quality and durability rather than money and profits.
I think we will get there eventually. It’ll just take time. So in the meantime, we have to find a way to not keep buying junk that breaks down all the time, or every year buying a slightly different model just to keep up with the Joneses.
Originally posted on Daily Rant Australia on March 5, 2016 by Andrew.
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