As a business practice, planned obsolescence is more than just an annoyance for consumers. It is also at odds with a sustainable future.
Planned Obsolescence ‒ a Bug in the System
I had an iPhone 4S that I kept for a little too long. In the end, it had become too slow to run most apps, and I would often miss calls, since there was a few seconds’ delay on the phone. Finally, it got so frustrating that I gave up, and replaced it with a new phone, even though it wasn’t broken. You may have experienced something similar.
Shortly after I bought my new phone, Apple was given a billion dollar fine by the Italian state for lowering the speed of older iPhones. The company admitted to having made phones with older batteries slower through software updates, in order to avoid problems with shutdowns. However, Apple denied that they had purposefully done anything to reduce the lifetime of their phones. This is a nuance that probably doesn’t matter much to most of us.
It may be that Apple and other smartphone producers are, in fact, doing what they think is best for the consumer. On the other hand, it is easy to suspect them of doing what they can to pressure customers into buying newer models — for example by designing operating systems solely for new phones, and neglecting older models. This is what Apple, and others accused of planned obsolescence, are criticised for doing. Whether this criticism — almost impossible to prove — is valid or not, planned obsolescence is a well-documented business strategy. This strategy has its roots in the early 20th century, when the so-called “light bulb cartel”, which included companies like Osram, GE, and Philips, purposefully produced light bulbs of poor quality, so that they would break faster.
Planned obsolescence aims to reduce the period between the time a product is produced and the time it is discarded, in order to stimulate more consumption; and, to this end, the producer uses a wide range of strategies. Amongst them is ‘contrived durability’, a term that describes the design of products which are intended to break down after a certain amount of time, for example by manufacturing important parts out of low quality materials. For instance, a clothing manufacturer might use poor fibres or weak seams in their textiles, making an otherwise good piece of clothing more susceptible to tearing. This is a bug for you as a consumer, but a consciously introduced feature by the manufacturer, who wants you back in the store. Other producers make it difficult to do your own repairs by assembling products in ways that require special tools to dismantle. We are also seeing a trend towards faster aesthetic obsolescence, promoted by the fashion industry, and a steadily growing number of fashion seasons (micro-seasons) that, at once, incite the consumers’ urge to buy new clothes and accommodate fast-changing trends.
Some argue that planned obsolescence is a necessary evil in a capitalist economy driven by constant growth and ever-increasing consumption, and that producers, in many ways, are simply reacting to consumers’ appetite for new products. After all, you could always stop buying things, and there is some truth to this sentiment. However, in a time where the ominous prospect of a future climate collapse makes sustainable production an imperative, it may look as if we are voluntarily speeding towards the abyss. It takes 2,700 litres of water to grow cotton for a generic, cheap t-shirt, the same amount of liquid a person drinks in 2½ years. Weaving and colouring the shirt is also an energy-intensive process. There are many more mind-blowing statistics such as these. You probably know of a few yourself.
Naturally, there will still be a demand for cotton clothing and consumer electronics in the future. But if the world is to house the 11 billion people that the UN expects us to be by 2100, it is necessary that we begin to see planned obsolescence for what it is: a serious bug in the system.