The planned obsolescence is process used by industries to reduce deliberately the lifespan of their products. The reason of this practice is simple. A product usable a long period of time is a brake, or even a risk, for companies because the demand for this product would decrease as soon as households would be equipped.
The principle is to reduce the lifespan, or the number of use, in order to increase the replacement rate. It can be done with less resistant materials or by including some measured defects.
The planned obsolescence is present in every business sectors since decades.
Birth of the planned obsolescence: the Light bulb
In 1924, manufacturers of light bulbs could offer a lifespan of 2500 hours. As the demand was constantly falling, main light bulbs producers met the 23th of December 1924 to find a solution . They were named the Phoebus cartel. Together, they decided to reduce all their light bulbs lifespan to 1000 hours in order to boost the consumption of their products.
Since this time, light bulbs can shine between 1000 hours and 2000 hours, even though there is patterns for bulbs which can last 100.000 hours. To illustrate this fact, we can take the example of the light bulbs at the Livermore fire station. Produced in 1901, it shines without interruption since, and has been switched on around 1 million hours. (Picture on the left)
New is always better
The planned obsolescence can also be done through marketing by giving the desire to the buyer of having something a little bit more recent, a little bit better, and sooner than necessary. Smartphones are a good example: most of the time our old (1-2 years) smartphones are thrown away even if they still work perfectly. The new smartphone don’t have any revolutionary features, it is usually just a little bit quicker, bigger… Apple is the master of this kind of planned obsolescence.
Good and bad consequences
The main unfortunate consequence is for the environment of course. The planned obsolescence require a lot of resources (raw material, oil, electricity) to design and manufacture always new products. But there is also the problem of all wastes created by our quick consumption of products. Most of the time there is no good waste processing, and some really toxic elements (like in batteries) are released in the nature.
But the planned obsolescence is an economic model that is working well for companies. Moreover, there are also good consequences which are very linked together. Companies, countries and the global economy growth rates can remain constant. And, there is no need to explain why it is essential. Jobs are created, unemployment stay low, households have money, consume and so are globally happy. I know it looks like clichés.
But, if all kinds of planned obsolescence will have to stop, most of the economic sectors would collapse, which would lead to a main crisis.
Finally, do you have the will to keep your smartphone until it is broken, keep your old car 25 years, buy new clothes only if yours have holes?
Stakes for coming years
I don’t think we have to stop the planned obsolescence. In my opinion, nobody would have benefits to do so.
Nevertheless, the environmental question remains important. The entire lifespan of a product, from the designing to the recycling have to be well managed. By companies or by states? I don’t have the answer.
Anyway, I think some companies specialized in the recycling will rise in coming decades and are going to be essentials. As resources and raw materials will be more and more rare and expensive, recycling is finally going to be a profitable field.
Recycling will, one day or another, be less expensive than exploiting resources, which are going to be more and more difficult to reach.
And you visitor, what do you think about the future of planned obsolescence?