Depending on who you ask, planned obsolescence can be described as a feasible business practice, a promotion of mindless consumerism, or a grand conspiracy of corporations. The important questions to ask, though, are whether it stands in the way of sustainable development and what can be done about it.
What is Planned Obsolescence?
Simply put, planned obsolescence is the practice of making a product with a deliberately limited life. The purpose of this approach is to shorten the replacement cycle – the time between when you buy an item and when you need to look for a new one. The most familiar example nowadays are phones: not only are they extremely fragile and nearly impossible to repair, but also often slowed down deliberately through official software updates, pushing users to buy a new model after only a couple of years.
Planned obsolescence comes in many forms:
- Contrived durability: The practice of making the product less durable by introducing design flaws or using inferior materials.
- Use of non-replaceable parts: Preventing users from changing components that are inherently prone to wear.
- Maintenance prevention: Making a product that can only be repaired with specialized equipment, prohibitively expensive to service, or straight-up single-use.
- Perceived obsolescence: Using design aesthetics that are bound to quickly fall out of fashion and become undesirable.
- Systemic obsolescence: Changing the systems the product is intended to work with, making it incompatible.
Consumerism and Planned Obsolescence: Which Came First?
In the light of the above, it is easy to see planned obsolescence as a conspiracy by corporations intended to indoctrinate the unsuspecting public with mindless consumerism and maximize profits. While such a view is certainly not unfounded, it overlooks other drivers behind the phenomenon.
For example, a certain degree of obsolescence is inevitable. No matter how durable and sustainable clothes may be, both fashion and personal tastes are bound to change, so the demand for a new pair of shoes will always be there. The same goes for systemic obsolescence – technological improvements lead to some standards becoming obsolete sooner or later, so clinging to old formats will do nothing but stifle innovation.In addition, planned obsolescence offers producers better control over the improvement cycle by making demand more predictable and allowing for cost adjustment. In other words, it is up to organizations to decide whether to remain ethical or use it for nefarious purposes.
Barrier to Sustainable Development?
Because of the strong anti-consumerism sentiment mentioned above, planned obsolescence is also often framed as one of the major problems facing sustainable development. And it is easy to see why – after all, the e-waste generated by the pressure of constant equipment updates is by no means sustainable, especially at the time when the planet is literally drowning in disposable plastic.
On the other hand, manufacturing products that last for eternity isn’t really sustainable either. Imagine you have a washing machine that you have bought, say, 30 years ago that has a lifetime of 200 years. What are the chances that manufacturers have come up with something better – a smarter model that leverages smart technologies to use less water or run on renewable energy? Is there any benefit to the fact that the old one will outlast you and maybe your children as well? Mind you, if it is really that durable – it will also be more expensive to recycle, and it requires more resources to produce in the first place, which means a bigger carbon footprint.
So should we succumb to the vicious cycle of mindless consumption and corporate greed? Certainly not. There are lots of ways to achieve sustainability without stifling competition and innovation:
- Introduce regulation that discourages deliberately flawed designs
- Create consumer protection laws that contain reasonable maintenance obligations
- Avoid proprietary standards whenever open alternatives are available
- Encourage fair competition and create innovation-friendly business environments
- Educate consumers and organizations on sustainability
Many, if not all, of these approaches are already underway in one form or another. For example, most portable electronics (most prominently phones and tablets) have already switched to the USB standard. This move eliminated the need to buy a new charger for each new device and brought down the cost of repairs.
Several advancements have also been made on the regulatory front, particularly in the EU. Most prominently, France has adopted the law under which manufacturing a deliberately flawed product is punishable by a fine and a jail term of up to two years. This law became the basis of a recent lawsuit against Apple which cost the company $27 million.
Finally, some companies tackle the problem by embracing the principles of circular economy. Some review their practices to see what issues hinder efforts to achieve sustainability and modify their products accordingly. Others go one step further by offering sustainable development courses to employees fostering the culture of sustainability throughout the organization.
A Closing Word
While planned obsolescence is often used for nefarious purposes, it is not inherently evil. A company with solid CSR policies and a sustainability roadmap will never offer a disposable product that breaks after only a month of use, especially with a lawsuit looming nearby. So it is not by embracing conspiratorial thinking but rather through regulation, responsible consumption, and literacy that we can balance innovation and competitiveness with the best value for everyone.