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Planned Obsolescence

Planned Obsolescence

This is a subject that gets me really fired up and frustrated! Planned obsolescence is something that affects all of us on a regular basis in what I consider a very negative way, but it's become so much a normal part of how things are done that we don't think about it, and many people aren't even aware of it. Google gives us this definition of the term: 

planned ob·so·les·cence

noun

  1. a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing, achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of nondurable materials.

In less technical terms, that's "designing stuff to break so that people have to keep buying more." This is pretty standard practice-- they really don't make things like they used to. Everything we buy, from clothing to small kitchen appliances, to big kitchen appliances, to our electronic devices, are designed with an end in sight. Often intentionally designed to be replaced by necessity sometime in the near future. Depending on your source, these designs range from the seemingly innocent use of nondurable materials, to real conspiracy theorist sounding dishonest practices-- like inserting a device in printers that will switch after a given number of prints, and make the machine stop working.  <Gasp> 

This all started with the lightbulb.  Back in the 1920s, a bunch of lightbulb manufacturers got together and decided that if they continued their progress of making longer and longer lasting lightbulbs, their businesses wouldn't thrive. They formed the first ever cartel and decided they'd put a ceiling on how many hours their lightbulbs would burn before needing replacement. They'd suppress the new technology, use thin glass, and other dubious methods to create shorter life-span bulbs and keep their customers returning over and over and over again. Clever, right? So even though the technology has existed since the 1920s for us to make a lightbulb that can last 100 years, here we are replacing ours every few months. Wasting time, money, resources, and creating mountains of discarded lightbulb trash. Another example that showed up frequently in my research was women's pantyhose. When they were originally invented, producers boasted their strength and durability--until their bosses sent them back to the drawing board to intentionally create an inferior product that would run, thus sending women back to buy more. 

Who hasn't ever been frustrated that things they own are constantly breaking? How many of you have walked into a phone store with a 2 year old model giving you trouble, and left with a new one, having been told the old one is obsolete and not worth fixing? Have you ever been told your washing machine needs a new part, but they don't make it anymore, so you'll have to get a whole new machine? When is the last time you had a pair of shoes repaired? Or anything repaired for that matter, shy of your car or major appliance? People used to fix things when they broke, but we now live in a society where most things aren't made with the intention of lasting a long time or being repaired when broken--instead we chuck the old one for a replacement. 

Perceived Obsolescence

The term perceived obsolescence refers to things that, rather than actually physically needing replacing because they break or wear out quickly, we perceive to be old and in need of replacement simply because they're outdated, out of trend, or last years model. There's a lot of advertising specifically targeted to make us feel like we need the latest iphone, newest car model, and current clothing trends. Frequent updates are designed with the intent to make us feel like it's time to trash the old and bring home the new. 

 

So, what can we do with this information? Stop buying cheap crap. 

We can call companies out on low quality and demand better products.

We can support companies making quality, durable products. (Sites like buymeonce.com are gaining popularity)

We can invest in quality whenever possible--basically buying less but buying better. It might be tempting to buy the cheap $20 Walmart version, but consider how soon you'll have to replace the item, what the environmental impact of that is, and whether investing in something three times the price might be more economical in the long run and save you time and frustration. 

Learn to be happy with what you have. Don't fall for the trap of perceived obsolescence. Buy items that not only are quality and long lasting, but have classic designs that won't  look or feel outdated quickly. Wear out last years boots, drive your car a few years more, and realize that the thrill of having the latest is a losing game. Making do with something you already have that's working great for you can free up your time to pursue more meaningful things. 

 

However, it is worth consideration and discussion that solving this problem on a large scale may require more than just a change in consumer mindset. I've been aware of planned obsolescence and frustrated with cheap products long before I ever embraced minimalism, and certainly before it ever occurred to me what an environmental disaster this system presents. It is simply unsustainable for us to keep producing and replacing everything at such a pace. A fascinating New Yorker article (linked below) says that "Despite a conspicuous boom in energy-efficient, recyclable, biodegradable, and nontoxic products on the market, resource exploitation continues to intensify—the footprint of annual global consumption now exceeds the replacement rate of the planet’s resources by one and a half times. (It would be four times if everyone on Earth consumed like the average American.)" It explores the difficult question of disentangling economic growth from throwaway culture and continues "finding an economic model for products that last is increasingly seen as critical to environmental sustainability. . . To truly change a light bulb will require policy changes—whether regulatory, market-based, or voluntary within industries—that support longer product lifetimes."

So, we humans need to figure out a way to create sustainable economies that aren't built on a model of constantly producing and replacing an ever increasing volume of stuff that we likely didn't need in the first place that that isn't built to last. I'm confident we can figure it out. In the meantime, on a personal level, I'm doing everything I can to make sure I'm not wasting my precious time and money frequently replacing all of my possessions. Does anyone know where I can find some lightbulbs with a lifetime warranty?

 

Additional Reading:

 

The L.E.D Quandry: Why there's no such thing as built to last (The New Yorker)

Planned Obsolescence (The Economist)

The Lightbulb Conspiracy (a documentary)

End of the Line for stuff that's built to die? (The Guardian)

 

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