Planned product obsolescence in a world with finite resources is absurd

Planned product obsolescence in a world with infinite resources is absurd

Planned product obsolescence or built-in obsolescence is an industrial design strategy whereof the intention is a planned 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, colors, 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 buying products again. The most well-known product and the first representing planned obsolescence is the light bulb. In 1925 in Geneva, a few very powerful businesses representing the largest light bulb manufactures men launched a worldwide cartel (the Phoebus Kartel was a cartel of, among others, Osram, Philips, and General Electric) that in1924 made a decision 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 was filed for  100.000 hrs.

In 1940, another major product invention was launched by the huge chemical factory DuPont, a synthetic fabric called Nylon. Nylon stocking was soon loved by girls, nevertheless, the joy was short lasting. The stocking was so strong and strong that they actually could pull a car.  The problem was that the fiber was too durable and the stockings hardly needed to be replaced. Therefore, the management in DuPont briefed the fabric engineers to develop a less strong fiber 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.”

  • 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 certain time stopped working or not function because new standards arrive whereof only newer versions of the same product are compatible, for example, computers; video, DVD, gaming console and often software are merely working with the newest versions.
The determined type of product materials
A product can be made of many types 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/or 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 own 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 another manufactures to effectively mass-produce different versions are made. The millions of used cartridges make a huge 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 whereof 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 replace their items even before its necessary. People often buy replacement and brand new products when a just minor upgrade is made or new colors arrive. Fashion is a good example of products we buy because of the new colors or style. By its very nature, the fashion industry, for example, is built around the consumer demand for new and different styles not the durability of individual garments. However, even here, turnover is becoming faster and new models are often designed to make their 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 expensive. The price difference between repair and purchase a brand new is in most cases in favor of the last option. This 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 actually today´s economic models biggest enemy 

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 can lower consumer confidence and in a long, run made other product groups suffer, particularly product that consumers need to 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 that actually is renting space to store stuff, that is sick

The increasing waste is an enormous problem and who is accountable?  We own a lot of stuff, take a look around you. We have DVD players, cell phones, computers, extra jackets, TV sets,  tons of shoes and so on. What is really 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% of the consumers own will work perfectly well for ten years. It’s only a small part that needs to be replaced, nevertheless; new design, colors 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 computers help to reduce the digital gap between fewer developed and developed countries. The fact is that 80% do not work and goes directly to the waste dump. In reality, most of the stuff that surrounds us does not need to be replaced. 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 as it was impossible to change the battery and after many complaints, they found out that the battery placed inside was made to the product had a shorter lifespan; the case became known as Wesley vs. Apple witch Apple actually 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 was to become as techno-savvy and rise to their standard it would simply not be enough natural resources to have the same lifestyle. He said in a letter that was sent from London about a future where the biggest problem was where to store all waste,” The original environmentalists at all time, Gandhi (read the post)

The business model based on the idea of fast 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 main problem sustainability is the biggest enemy of fast 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 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 repair, sew or change product parts.
  • Wrong mentality – It’s OK to throw away products and maintain a disposable culture.
  • 1 percent-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 of it being recycled.
  •  Plastic bag’s production worldwide per annum; one trillion. Only 5-7% recycled…
  • 20 to 50 million tonnes: Total amount of global e-waste each year, as estimated by the United Nations, with little of it being recycled.
  • 20% of the Amazon rainforest is consumed and 80% 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 approximately 2.2 billion tonnes per annum by 2025.  This 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 simple 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 a future with low or limited natural resources.

What can be done to reduce the impacts of planned obsolescence?

  • Purchase quality – be conscious and look for durable fabrics and product with quality and warranty.
  • Durable fabrics and materials – Look for items that are 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 policy 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 other?
  • Take care of your things– read washing labels, follow service programs, store and handle them right, and read product manuals. Valuating your things will increase their lives.
  • Second hand – purchase second-hand clothing and other goods, why look like everyone else by purchasing 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 garments 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, do not let it be stored in a closet or warehouse.
Planned product obsolescence documentary 
Statistics clothing t-shirts the UK
Recommended post; Re-thinking Environment and Sustainable Development in the Twenty-first Century
Quotes Gandhi; Gandhi, in search of a style icon
Documentary: lightbulb conspiracy
Eco-fashion dictionary: planned product obsolescence
European Union, Extended Producer Responsibility. EPR manufacturers are accountable for the entire lifecycle of their products, including the post-consumer phase and the ensuing environmental and human health effects. If a corporation uses toxic materials, for instance, it has to take that product back when a consumer is finished with it.
The Story of Stuff, a must-see online documentary

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