• The Parley Project

Built to Last (or Not)

By Vidhi Somani

In 2020, the world’s longest-lasting light bulb known as the Centennial Light completed almost 120 years of burning non-stop at a fire station in California, USA. A family in Long Island, New York continues to cook on a 97-year-old stove without any inconvenience. A 1933 Bakelite phone in a British Pub was used for the next 77 years after its installation. We observe that products that were manufactured decades ago showcase excellent performance and durability. Despite technological development, the products we use today last for a limited period of time. Which brings us to ask- why so?

Planned obsolescence is the policy of deliberately manufacturing goods to become obsolete within a known short period of time. The low durability of the products forces us to repair or replace them which contributes to maintaining consistent high consumption levels. In 1924, the main manufacturers of light bulbs had a meeting in Geneva which led to the formation of the Phoebus Cartel. This cartel standardized the useful life of the lightbulb to be 1000 hours, in comparison to the 1500 to 2000 hours that was the average life of a lightbulb back then. The cartel then went on to find anyone who manufactured lightbulbs with a lifetime longer than 1000 hours. In 1932, during the Great Depression, Real Estate agent Bernard London suggested a way to stimulate consumption to get the economy back on track: “To chart the obsolescence of capital and consumption goods at the time of their production” (Conocimiento, 2020). With large and rapidly growing capitalist economies, more businesses have adopted the strategy of planned obsolescence across various sectors.

In the past few years, companies have actively adopted the strategy of perceived obsolescence. Perceived obsolescence is a situation wherein the consumer feels the need to buy an updated product even though their old one has not lost functionality. This policy is extensively used in the electronics and fashion industry. Companies in this sector launch new “improved” products frequently and develop a sense of dissatisfaction among consumers with the products they own, leading to an increase in demand for the latest goods.

Social Impact

Planned Obsolescence contributes heavily to the development of a culture of wastefulness. It has led to the creation of a society where consumption is directly related to satisfaction. By promoting the “buy more, buy new” mentality, this strategy has successfully shaped every one of us into frequent shoppers by tricking us into thinking that purchasing goods more often enables us to lead a happier and more fulfilled lifestyle. Apple Inc. has always been at the “centre of skeptical consumer discourse” (Kenton, 2019). iPhone 7 being one of the first phones to be manufactured without a headphone jack created quite a stir in the market. The absence of the port made way for the promotion of Airpods, Apple’s wireless earphones. This change in design at the production stage rendered previously owned earphones useless and altered the needs of the consumers. Today, Airpods alone generate a revenue of 12 Billion dollars which accounts for almost 4.5% of the company’s total sales.

Economic Impact

Prior to the introduction of this strategy, companies all over the world focused on customer loyalty and the products developed reflected the same, in contrast to the present. The increased dominance of American businesses globally as well as their capitalist nature accelerated this shift. Competition among firms in the international market incentivized them to adopt this practice to maximize their profits and maintain their sales. Additionally, the measures used to determine growth nation-wise primarily focus on the production of goods and services. This skews the objective from the quality of production to the quantity of production. Replacing raw materials with feasible substitutes and frequent changes in the design of the product also allow companies to manufacture goods at a lower price. The nature of markets and goods has given way to an economy fueled by consumerism. Fast fashion is one of the most classic examples of this impact. It refers to the mass production of cheap and low-quality disposable clothing. This type of fashion aims to quickly move clothing designs from the catwalk to the stores by keeping up with the trends. Fast fashion business model companies such as H&M and Zara actively engage in perceived obsolescence by putting out new lines of clothing. By making their previous designs feel out of style, they attract customers to shop their new collections.

Environmental Impact

Planned obsolescence serves as an excellent business strategy for revenue and growth sustainability but does not do the same for environmental sustainability. This policy has a profound impact on the environment. With constant large-scale production and purchase of goods comes tonnes of waste that is generated on a daily basis. Consumers have to naturally re-purchase items regularly due to their limited life span and this results in perpetually keeps up a “cycle of life-death-landfill” (Cotton, 2019). This actively demonstrates that we are moving farther from the zero-waste lifestyles and circular economy model that we should be striving towards. Besides the generation of waste, massive exploitation of natural resources for raw materials poses a big threat to the deterioration of the planet. Toxic substances such as lead, mercury, and cadmium often used during production possess the potential to cause severe health issues if found in the surroundings of communities. Up to 50 million tons of E-waste is generated of which almost 85% is discarded. This discarded waste can be found irresponsibly dumped in developing countries by highly developed countries causing harm to the environment, people, plants, and animals there. Companies such as Apple, H&M, Zara, and many more are responsible for large carbon footprints, extensive extraction of resources, and landfill wastes due to their business models which prioritize profits over sustainability.

Right to Repair Movement and Other Movements

Several measures have been taken against the policy of planned obsolescence in the past few years. The Right to Repair and the fair repair movements trace back their origin to the USA. The Right to Repair refers to government legislation and movement that works towards giving consumers the right to repair or modify the devices they purchase from a place of their own choosing as opposed to limiting the consumers to use the repair services provided by the manufacturers of the goods only. Countries like France have laws in place to combat planned obsolescence which consider shortening the lifespan of a product just to cause the customer to replace it a crime. It has held Apple responsible for deliberately slowing down their older phones during the launches for the brand new models.

What Next?

With all these movements in place, the ultimate goal of eradicating this policy can be achieved through the perfect mixture of legislation, modification, and education.

Legislation: Inspired by the law against planned obsolescence in France, countries all over the world should make it a priority to adopt it while keeping in place minimum durability criteria and extended fair warranty standards in place. Similarly, the Right to Repair legislation should make affordable and accessible repairs available for any consumer to avoid inconveniences and inevitable replacement of goods.

Modification: The Circular economy model serves as an antidote to all the waste generated due to planned obsolescence which revolves around the idea of keeping products in circulation for as long as you possibly can. This particularly aims to manufacture products that are built to last, that can be mended repeatedly, and ones that will constantly have spare replacement parts available. This structure is designed to ensure environmental as well as economic sustainability rather than just gravitating towards one.

Education: Research and Development play a very crucial role in the composition of products. Monitoring trends in product lifetimes will ensure the creation of long-lasting product designs and help discard the factors that negatively affect their durability. Consumer education and information are key to fighting this battle. The first step towards change is awareness which will lead to shaping a society of conscious well-informed consumers.


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