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Planned product obsolescence

Planned product obsolescence or built-in obsolescence is an industrial design strategy of which the intention is a prepared product with a limited lifespan. The most common form of product obsolescence is the fading out of product when new versions with major or brand-new minor innovations, colours, etc. are replacing the current product line; however, planned product obsolescence is another story. Planned product obsolescence was an idea already thought in the 19th century and became a reality during the beginning of 1930’s great depression in America when manufactures to shorten the lifespan of products to increase demand and make consumers start repurchasing products.

The light bulb

The most popular product and the first representing planned obsolescence is the light bulb. In 1925 in Geneva, a few compelling businesses representing the most significant light bulb manufactures men launched a worldwide cartel (the Phoebus Kartel was a cartel of, among others, Osram, Philips, and General Electric) that in1924 decided to control the manufacture and sale of light bulbs. They set the limit in the lifetime of the light bulb to 1000 hours. However, already then the light bulb lasted for 2500 hrs, and a patent filed for 100.000 hrs.

The Nylon Stocking

In 1940, another major product invention launched by the considerable chemical factory DuPont, a synthetic fabric called Nylon. Girls soon loved nylon stocking. Nevertheless, the joy was short-lasting. The hose so strong they actually could pull a car.

The problem was that the fibre made too durable and the stockings hardly needed to be replaced. Therefore, the management in DuPont briefed the fabric engineers to develop a less strong fibre to increase demand and sale. In the 1950s, the idea of planned product obsolesced continued, Brooks Stevens an American industrial designer the term in 1954, explaining it at an advertising conference as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”


Without Planned Obsolescence Would not Shopping Malls Exist

  • Airport = mall (Heathrow airport is ten times more  profitable per square foot than average shopping malls)
  • City = shopping
  • Shopping = Museums
  • Mall = public space
  • Entertainment = shopping
  • Architecture = shopping
  • Las Vegas = substance

The way products become obsolete?

Product compatibility

  • In the consumer market products after a specific time stopped working or not function because new standards arrive of whom only more modern versions of the same product are compatible, for example, computers; video, DVD, gaming console and often software are merely working with the newest releases.

The determined type of product materials

  • A product made of many kinds of materials and several grades of each. In a low-price product strategy, the materials used can be of a less durable quality but less expensive. A lot of products do not need a long lifespan because the technological progress is so fast that within a few years, the product will be outdated.

Expensive component

  • In many cases new technological, advanced parts and expansive in a product might only be the difference between earlier product versions or competitors, in these cases, producers make these parts radically different from previous models, competitors or even within their product lines. The printer’s ink cartridge is a good example. They are designed disposable, small and does not fit any other printer brand or model in the market. The ink cartridge is the most crucial part of the printer, and replacement is expensive; therefore, to stop and make it less desirable for other manufactures. So, it is not adequate to mass-produce different versions. The millions of used cartridges make a substantial environmental impact, often designed not to be recyclable (recyclable use a lot of energy to recover).

Perceived obsolescence

  • Advertising and marketing have created a consumer culture of which hunting and owning the newest and most fashionable product is the key to success. Perceived obsolescence is a powerful psychological tool; even when new technology is replacing old, products in most cases still work as good. However, people are convinced to return their items even before its necessary. People bought a replacement and brand-new products when a just minor upgrade innovated or new colours arrived. Fashion is an excellent example of products we buy because of the new colours, fits or style. By its very nature, the fashion industry, for example, is built around the consumer demand for a new and different style or look, not garment durability. However, even here, turnover is becoming faster, new models often designed to make predecessors look ugly or out-of-date.

Expensive and difficult to repair

  • Most products today are not made to be repaired, or the critical parts are too costly. The price difference between repair and purchase a brand new is, in most cases, in favour of the last option. It is a huge problem because a whole generation has forgotten how to repair, sew and maintain products and the craftsmanship disappeared. We automatically buy a new with the insensitive from manufacturers whom an unused product is better, which often last shorter than the old one.

Sustainability is today´s economic models’ biggest enemy

Cyclical Consumption Model

Marketing and sales drive planned product obsolescence

Marketing and sales almost in every case except a product to become obsolete and built-in design to the longevity expected, this is called value engineering. Most products are built to last longer with better components; however, it’s always a question of how to maximize product profit. Nevertheless, a brand needs to find the right balance between consumer perceived product quality and actual. The product will be more expensive with better components, and the consumer will have to pay a higher price; this will lower the sales for manufacturers. Value engineering is a risky business as it reduces consumer confidence, and other product groups suffer. Mainly product consumers rely on. For example, watches, mobile phones, computer and high-technology products where the consumer seldom can be able to repair the product without a specialist, this can be time-consuming and irritating.

Our generation is the first renting space to store stuff, that’s sick

The increasing waste is an enormous problem who is accountable? We own a lot of things, take a look around you. We have DVD players, cell phones, computers, extra jackets, TV sets, tons of shoes and so on. What is outdated? What do you want to change because it is uncool? The computer, for example, seems to be outdated every second or third year. However, the computer 99 per cent of the consumers own will work perfectly well for ten years. It’s only a small part replaced. Nevertheless; new design, colours and minor fresh features make us buy new ones.


Every year, the western world sends millions of tons of nearly new computers, laptops, mobile phones and low-price electronics to Africa, because of companies by sending it to avoid high taxes for dumping. Every day, thousands of containers arrive with electronics and used computers to Africa; companies pretending they are generous and says the machines help to reduce the digital gap between fewer developed and developed countries. The fact is that 80 per cent do not work and goes directly to the waste dump. Most of the stuff that surrounds us does not need replacing. Nevertheless, we continue buying replacements.

Most low price printers have a built-in chip that when they reached a certain number of prints, they stop working. Apple, when launched the first I-pods did the same, impossible to change the battery and after many complaints, consumers discovered the battery placed inside made with shorter lifespan; the lawsuit Wesley vs Apple witch Apple lost. Planned product obsolescence creates an enormous waste problem as most of the products are electronic, mobiles, computers, etc.

Stop planned product obsolescence

During the industrial revolution, Gandhi visited textile factories in England, and he saw the problems arising. “But it was Gandhi, who by his practice and speeches, said if India becomes techno-savvy and rise to western standard, it would only not be enough natural resources to maintain the same lifestyle. Gandhi wrote in a letter about a future where the biggest problem was where to store all the waste.

The business model based on the idea of electric consumption has to end. We live on a planet with finite resources, and unless the paradigm shift from a market to a nature-driven economy happens, our home Earth will be un-liveable for future generations. The central problem sustainability is the biggest enemy of electric consumption and a circular economic model; it has to be feed endlessly with consumer goods — otherwise, the wheel stop and the system collapse. Therefore, the merry go around speeds up faster; more money earned, higher salary, more consumption, and now we are about to fall off.

Planned product obsolescence environmental implications

  • Resource depletion – increase the use of limited materials and natural resources
  • Increase energy consumption – the manufacturing process needs more water, electricity, oil, coal, etc. to replace the products.
  • Waste generation – growing waste locally and internationally
  • Loss of craftsmanship and ability to repair – people do no longer know how to fix, sew or change product parts.
  • Wrong mentality – It’s OK to throw away products and maintain a disposable culture.

Statistics Consumption and Waste

  • 1 per cent-the percentage of materials still in use six months after purchase.
  • 20 to 50 million tonnes: Total amount of global e-waste each year, as estimated by the United Nations, with little recycled.
  •  Plastic bag’s production worldwide per annum; one trillion. Only 5-7 per cent recycled
  • 20 to 50 million tonnes: Total amount of global e-waste each year, as estimated by the United Nations, with little recycled.
  • Twenty per cent of the Amazon rainforest consumed, and 80 per cent of Earth’s original forests that are gone.
  • Global MSW generation levels approximately 1.3 billion tonnes per annum, and are expected to increase to around 2.2 billion tonnes per annum by 2025. It represents a significant increase in per-capita waste generation rates, from 1.2 to 1.42 kg.
  • The OECD countries generate 572 million tonnes of solid waste per annum. The per-capita values range from 1.1 to 3.7 kg per person
  • In the UK, an estimated 350,000 tonnes of clothing are sent to landfill each year (WRAP UK)
  • UK import approximately 460 million T-shirts per annum or more than seven each.
  • Worlds spending on fashion per annum $1trillion

The light at the end of the tunnel

However, a move towards a green economy is happening as we speak, companies not only need to change their way of manufacturing, reduce and re-think their future business model completely; why sell new when it’s overflowing? Increased quality, repair shops, remake clothing lines, Waste Management systems, share innovations and transportation, local as global production, life cycle, factory workers, transparency and environmental equity, All or few of these strategies require higher consumer prices and re-think manufacturing and design processes. The companies that keep a clear, understandable and straightforward business model and strive towards a sustainable business platform will be the winners in a better sustainable consumer culture. Remember, those who own most will also lose most in the future with low or limited natural resources.

What can be done to reduce the impact

  • Purchase quality – be conscious and look for durable fabrics and product with quality and warranty.
  • Durable fabrics and materials – Look for items made of durable materials.
  • Recyclable – be conscious and look for products made of recycled material, or can be recycled.
  • Company consumer service – purchase from companies that have an environmentally friendly policy regarding buy-back, take-back, and recycling as a part of their system and consumer service.
  • Repair – can the product be repaired during the warranty period, do they have a consumer service offering repairs and upgrades? Are the products compatible with others?
  • Take care of your things – read washing labels, follow service programs, store and handle them right, and read product manuals. Valuating your ideas will increase their lives.
  • Second-hand – purchase second-hand clothing and other goods, why look like everyone else by buying the latest fashion. It saves money, which saves on raw materials and keeps unnecessary things out of landfills.
  • Swapping – arrange swapping events, swap clothes, shoes, books, music, films, etc. (stay fashionable, ten people meet and bring ten garments each, each will have 90 new clothes to choose from)
  • Product life cycle – use the product until its unusable or have planned when you want to change; sell, give away or recycle, however, not stored in a closet or warehouse.

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