Planned obsolescence (1/4)

What is Planned Obsolescence, and why should we care?

The light bulb moment

When did you last replace a light bulb in your home? Did you know there genuinely exists a light that never goes out? With the exception of a few days, here and there, the centennial bulb in Livermore, California, has stayed on and functioning for 120 years (as of June 2019). You can even watch the bulb, via live webcam, here

So why does the standard home light bulb last only 1,000 hours? 

Lightbulb – Photo by Burak K from Pexels

Because of planned obsolescence. Because in December 1924 a group of businessmen founded the Phoebus Cartel, “a supervisory body that would carve up the worldwide incandescent light bulb market” (Krajewski, 2014). 

“The cartel’s grip on the lightbulb market lasted only into the 1930s. Its far more enduring legacy was to engineer a shorter life span for the incandescent light bulb. By early 1925, this became codified at 1,000 hours for a pear-shaped household bulb, a marked reduction from the 1,500 to 2,000 hours that had previously been common. Cartel members rationalized this approach as a trade-off: Their lightbulbs were of a higher quality, more efficient, and brighter burning than other bulbs. They also cost a lot more. Indeed, all evidence points to the cartel’s being motivated by profits and increased sales, not by what was best for the consumer. In carefully crafting a lightbulb with a relatively short life span, the cartel thus hatched the industrial strategy now known as planned obsolescence.”

Krajewski, 2014

What is Planned Obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence is the practice, primarily by large companies, of producing products that are built to fail at a predetermined time – as opposed to being built to last – and as a result we are weighing our world down with our waste.

‘Brown Garbage’ – Photo by Emmet from Pexels

There’s more than one type of Planned Obsolescence?

There are various subcategories of planned obsolescence but the main three are design, repairability and aesthetic.

  1. Design obsolescence is when a product is specifically designed to fail at a time agreed by the producers.
  2. Repairability obsolescence is also a feature of product design (as above), but in the elements of the design that make a product near impossible for the user to repair themselves (have you ever tried to repair an Apple product? It’s practically impossible. Why? Because they use patented screws and matching patented tools – and that’s just to open their products!).
  3. Aesthetic obsolescence occurs when a company releases a shinier, newer, sleeker, smaller, faster model of an existing, perfectly functional, product thereby manipulating consumers to think that they need the shinier, newer etc…

A couple of examples: Planned Obsolescence and technology

Phones are one of the best examples of planned obsolescence and one of the main areas in which most users are, at least peripherally, aware that this issue even exists. In fact planned obsolescence is rife in almost every product based industry you can think of.

Apple and Samsung have both, individually, been fined in the past for the unnecessary planned obsolescence of their products. Apple are also culpable of carrying out a practice called throttling – releasing updates that, rather than improving the products’ usability and lifespan, are specifically geared toward slowing it down, thus forcing you to trade in for a newer, better model. 

Apple have sold over 1 billion iPhones since the product’s launch in 2007. (Buck, 2017) 

‘Assorted iPhone Lot’ – Freytez, G from Pexels

Why is it called Planned Obsolescence?

The term planned obsolescence was coined by American real estate broker Bernard London in his 1932 pamphlet titled “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”. His plan was that the government ought to put a legal end of life stamp on products, forcing consumers to make their old products obsolete and upgrade them. And it worked. Most of our kitchen appliances still come with a recommended end of life span. We’re still recommended to change our mattresses every eight years.

Whose fault is it?

It would be easy to place the entire blame of planned obsolescence on big corporations but the consumers are far from without fault. Aesthetic obsolescence, for example, is almost entirely the fault of the consumer. Sure, big companies have equally big marketing departments entirely devoted toward convincing us, as consumers, that we will be better off, happier, with the newer, prettier model of whatever they’re selling. 

But how often do we as consumers stop to consider what we actually need. What is a need to us, the privileged Western consumer, with everything at our fingertips?

The corporations may have marketing departments but if we stop to consider our needs, we will soon realise that a shinier smartphone is not a need. A functioning one however, it could be argued in our current society that a working smartphone is, in fact, a need. Maybe you need one for work, or to keep in touch with family far away. But do you need the newest one? The rose gold one?

We demand progress and constant betterment and we want it now, not stopping to consider what might be on the line. Our precious resources, natural spaces, clean air and toxin-free earth… all are under threat from the vast strain of our consumerism and, by extension, planned obsolescence. Scrapped cars are piling up all over the world, e-waste is seeping toxic chemicals into the ground and the fashion industry is burning completely untouched, unused clothing. 

‘Birds Eye View of Landfill During Daytime’ – Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

Necessary Planned Obsolescence

It’s important to mention that not all obsolescence is unnecessary. Depending on your ideals you may not agree, but from our present perspective, if some forms of planned obsolescence stopped, vast areas of our technological industries would become chaotic and their progress would stall. 

And sometimes, the update really is a huge improvement on the current model.

One of the earliest examples of product obsolescence was the introduction of the electronic starter motor for cars. It wasn’t at all uncommon for the old crank handles to cause broken arms due to the kick of the car starting – so they became, understandably, almost immediately obsolete. It’s hard to argue that this was a bad thing.

Planned obsolescence is just one of many areas in which mankind needs to strive for balance.

Not all planned obsolescence is bad. No one group of people or companies or even one individual is to blame for it, or its repercussions. It is a result of the growth of a society and industry that we have built. And now we have to deal with it.

Are you curious about how we got here, what made us a consumerist culture and what in our psychology means that product marketing works so well? Well, sit tight for our next articles in which we’ll try and answer some more of your questions!

Bibliography & References

Aladeojebi, Taiwo. (2013) Planned Obsolescence [online] at https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7b94/a236e2bbb9817a10e23428acaa821a724fd0.pdf [Accessed on 08.01.20]

Baddeley, B (2018) Planned Obsolescence isn’t a thing, but it is your fault [online] at https://hackaday.com/2018/09/24/planned-obsolescence-isnt-a-thing-but-its-your-fault/ [Accessed on 02.01.20]

Bouchard, M. Planned Obsolescence and its Unplanned Environmental Ramifications [online] at https://www.academia.edu/9637808/Planned_Obsolescence_and_Its_Unplanned_Environmental_Ramifications [Accessed on 20.12.19]

Buck, S. (2017) GM invented planned obsolescence during the Great Depression, and we’ve been buying it ever since [online] at https://timeline.com/gm-invented-planned-obsolescence-cc19f207e842 [Accessed on 9.1.20]

Cooper, T (2004) Inadequate Life? Evidence of Consumer Attitudes to Product Obsolescence [online] at https://www.researchgate.net/publication/225964634_Inadequate_LifeEvidence_of_Consumer_Attitudes_to_Product_Obsolescence [Accessed on 21.12.19]

Del Mastro, A. (2012) Planned Obsolescence: The Good and The Bad. [online] at

https://www.perc.org/2012/07/18/planned-obsolescence-the-good-and-the-bad/ [accessed on 11.01.20]

Gregory, P. (1947) A Theory of Purposeful Obsolescence [online] at https://www.academia.edu/2212944/Planned_obsolescence [Accessed on 20.12.19]

Krajewski, M. (2014) The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy [online] at https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/dawn-of-electronics/the-great-lightbulb-conspiracy [Accessed on 22.1.20]

Shaffer, K. (2015) Planned Obsolescence [online] at https://www.academia.edu/21396146/Planned_Obsolescence-_The_Ethical_Aspect [Accessed on 20.12.19]

Author: Anna Kommers
Spanish translation: Anna Kommers & Estefanía Lozano