It has become something of an emblematic case: a printer ink cartridge equipped with two microchips. The first one is meant to block printing well before the ink is exhausted. After that, the second one prevents any filling of empty cartridges. Welcome to planned obsolescence, or “built-in obsolescence,” an economic model that includes all the techniques aiming to reduce the lifespan or duration of use of a product in order to increase its replacement rate.
In Europe, it was not until 2006 and the implementation of the WEEE Directive (EU Directive on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) that printer manufacturers began selling recyclable cartridges in the EU. However, the interested parties, who derive more than half of their revenue from ink cartridges, quickly found a workaround. To prevent the development of a secondary market for recycled cartridges that would compete directly, they began recovering the empty cartridges… in order to destroy them. Deprived of planned obsolescence, they still seek to retain a hold on of the market.
In the area of consumer electronics, “planned obsolescence” is an addiction that is hard to break. Examples abound of device failures happening just after the warranty expires. For instance with Apple, an iPod’s battery is a bit fragile and replacing it costs just a little less than the price of a new iPod. The same Apple is being sued by the Brazilian Institute of software patents (Ibdi) because the Ipad 4, a tablet which was launched just months after the iPad 3, clearly puts owners of the former model at a disadvantage, causing unexpected software hassles, without significant improvement made on the latter model. Not to mention electronic device chargers, which are unnecessarily diverse, even for successive models of the same brand, and which heap up in our drawers, despite being in perfect condition… yet already obsolete.
Other business lines are also impacted: textbooks publishers, for instance, are masters in the art of modifying the books with piecemeal additions from one year to the other, so as to force schools and students to buy the new version. And when the technical reliability of products increases – this is the case for cars – thus extending their lifespan, manufacturers seek to suggest, through innovative design, a visual obsolescence for previous models. As for the ready-to-wear market, it has turned planned obsolescence – punctuated by a frenetic pace and christened “fashion” – into the heart of its business model.
The collateral damage of planned obsolescence is thus, obviously, waste and the piling up of refuse that is nonetheless in working condition. Designing products so that they quickly cease to be useable is, at best, considered as commercial treachery and deception of the consumer, and at worst, as a material crime against the environment. In this triumphant age of CSR (corporate social responsibility of the company), it therefore has a bad reputation. As a matter of fact, a bill to make it illegal has even been drafted, in France, by an ecologist senator.
The ideal world of circularity
In theory, however, planned obsolescence is not doomed to lead to wastefulness. If nothing were ever discarded, if the economy were perfectly circular, all behaviors would be acceptable. But it would take tremendous progress in recycling for this to happen, and it would also require that the products, which are presently designed to be quickly outdated, are henceforth made in order to readily optimize the recovery and recycling of the rarest raw materials they contain.
The 2012 WEEE European Directive aims to bring the rate of collection of these wastes up to 85 %. In an ideal world of systematic recycling, it would be possible to reconcile unbridled consumption, frenzy for fashion, planned obsolescence and environmental protection. Provided that the manufacturers take into consideration all the successive lives of a product and stop favoring only the one portion of said life that brings them revenue. In short, they need to become capable of seeing the big picture, relative to the value chain. As a matter of fact, manufacturers of electric car batteries have already made a head start by incorporating this dimension. They are readily designing their batteries so that after having served in powerful cars, and after that, in “short trip” motorists’ vehicles, they will end up as of electricity storage units.
Even well-meaning manufacturers are perplexed. Abandoning planned obsolescence – wouldn’t that equal to cutting off the branch on which their income model sits? To answer this question, it is necessary to change the paradigm, and to draw inspiration from the world of software, where it is possible to offer updates that will not jeopardize the operation of the product’s main structure. Innovation would then happen via functionality and purpose, rather than via the object itself. Achieving such a revolution commands a disruption in the object’s identity, which ceases to be the center of the sales process and becomes but one of the wheels of a chain of purpose. For example, a car or a bicycle both become alternative links in the chain of a “mobility provider.”
A catalyst for progress?
If obsolescence is treachery, then consumers are enthusiastic accomplices, as noted by designer Brooks Stevens (1911-1995): “Planned obsolescence instills in consumers the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”
Philip Kotler, a famous professor of marketing strategy at Northwestern University, is also among Stevens’ assiduous supporters: “Much so-called planned obsolescence is the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society – forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services.” According to him, planned obsolescence would somehow be the bread and butter & fundamental lubricant of a market economy.
And just like cholesterol, planned obsolescence is not a univocal evil. Bad obsolescence consists in introducing mere cosmetic changes that improve neither utility nor performance and constrain towards replacement for all the wrong reasons. This is what experts call “pseudo-functional obsolescence”, which is difficult to detect because it readily comes under the guise of innovative design – a strategy that not only creates frustration among consumers, but that has proven to be quite harmful to our environment.
Conversely, there may be good reasons to plan obsolescence. Should some products not purposefully be designed not to last, they would remain out of reach for most people. Another respectable argument is “value engineering”, that is to say, the analysis of value in the design phase. The aim is to use as little material as possible, while providing an acceptable lifespan; it is also to ensure that all parties malfunction at about the same time, so as to reduce waste. This is, somehow, responsible planned obsolescence. A simple example: given the pace of technological advances in telecommunications, it would be pointless to build a mobile phone capable of lasting ten years. It’s a good thing that mobile devices are made for the most part of cheap plastic. A phone made out of titanium would outlast its usefulness by a very long shot. So, such positive planned obsolescence protects the environment. “Functional obsolescence” also has its virtues. It occurs when the introduction of a radically innovative product makes previous models not only outdated but largely useless. This is the case of smartphones, whose features have nothing to do with those of the first mobile phones.
It should be noted that the concept of planned obsolescence only concerns mass-market consumer goods. The luxury industry, and that is especially true regarding extreme luxury, works with the opposite principle, that of “eternal security.” Faced with this durability of products, the one who is going to himself experience obsolescence is the consumer himself. The Swiss watchmaker Patek Philippe brought this concept to its climax with a famous ad: “You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.”
A remedy for the crisis?
Regarding planned obsolescence, the current distrust it provokes speaks, ironically, of thwarted destiny. For there was a time when some sincerely believed it would save the world. In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, at a time consumption and investment were both paralyzed, American essayist Bernard London published a resounding essay, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.”
For him, growth was too serious a matter to be left to consumer confidence: “People everywhere, in a frightened and hysterical mood, are today disobeying the law of obsolescence. They are using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected on the basis of earlier experience. Society, therefore, is suffering untold loss in foregoing the workpower of ten million human beings”. According to London, “in the present inadequate economic organization of society, far too much is staked on the unpredictable whims and caprices of the consumer. Changing habits of consumption have destroyed property values and opportunities for employment. The welfare of society has been left to pure chance and accident. Briefly stated, the essence of my plan for accomplishing these much-to-be-desired-ends is to chart the obsolescence of capital and consumption goods at the time of their production.” What had to be said was said.
London’s thinking is consistent with a fundamentally optimistic current of thought. Long, with Malthus, we had feared shortages, especially where food is concerned; shortages that an unfettered population growth would inevitably entail. Yet the industrial revolution and technological advances have changed the equation, and mindsets settled into another fiction, that of a world of unlimited resources: “However, modern technology and the whole adventure of applying creative science to business have so tremendously increased the productivity of our factories and our fields that the essential economic problem has become one of organizing buyers rather than of stimulating producers.” For London, to organize the consumption of buyers is to decide for them when and how they will make their purchases.
What shall we conclude at the end of the day? Firstly, that from a strictly economic standpoint, the model of planned obsolescence is not irrelevant, and it has not said its final word yet. It is possible, even, that consumers benefit from it, at least indirectly, per the innovations that such a model can render profitable.
But the idea of an ever faster functioning industry is becoming stale today. On the one hand, it wraps itself in the environmentally attractive form of a circular economy – but we’re not there yet, far from it. On the other hand, eighty years after Bernard London, optimism has given way to doubt, at least in developed countries. The idea that resources are finite is once more emerging. When it takes to 150,000 liters of water to build a car and 7000 to produce a pair of jeans, purposefully planning obsolescence appears as a dreadful conspiracy. France alone annually produces one million tons of electrical and electronic refuse. It shall come as no surprise then that “green” movements all to easily denounce this sorry contradiction: at the very time that the money required to fund the ecological transition is scarce, companies are investing considerable energy and sums to deliberately produce defective products. In the eyes of the aforementioned currents, which are gaining ever more widespread attention from a concerned public opinion, this is predatory and wanton destruction, a far cry from Schumpeter’s vaunted creative destruction.
- Story of Stuff, Full Version; How Things Work, About Stuff (video, YouTube)
- Bernard London, Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence (1932)
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