For a long time, I didn’t believe that planned obsolescence was a thing. Recently, I read that it was a thing, as early as the 1920s, albeit not by that name.
Planned obsolescence is a policy of designing a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete after a predetermined period of time upon which it ceases to function well, completely ceases to function, or might be perceived as unfashionable. The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases.
An example is the Phoebus Cartel, which was an international cartel that controlled the manufacture and sale of incandescent light bulbs in much of Europe and North America between 1925-1939. The cartel worked to standardize the life expectancy of light bulbs at 1,000 hours, down from the current 2,500 hours. The cartel tested light bulbs and fined manufacturers for bulbs that lasted more than 1,000 hours.
Another example is introducing minor changes or changes in appearance to tempt consumers to buy new models.
In 1924, the American automobile market began reaching saturation point. To maintain unit sales, General Motors introduced annual model-year design changes to convince car owners to buy new replacements each year, with refreshed appearances. Henry Ford did not like the constant stream of model-year changes because he clung to an engineer’s notions of simplicity, economies of scale, and design integrity. GM surpassed Ford’s sales in 1931 and became the dominant company in the industry thereafter.
The origin of the phrase “planned obsolescence” goes back to at least as far as 1932 with Bernard London’s pamphlet Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. However, the phrase was first popularized in 1954 by Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer. By the late 1950s, “planned obsolescence” had become a commonly used term for products designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style.
There are several variants of planned obsolescence. Listed in the order of increased severity, they are:
Why is planned obsolescence a bad thing? For the consumer, this causes annoyance and an unnecessary cost of repairs or replacement. There are issues of disposal or recycling. Planned obsolescence results in a waste of materials, resources, and human time. According to Less is More (J. Hickel, 2021), “150 million discarded computers are shipped to countries like Nigeria, where they end up in sprawling open-air dumps that leak mercury, arsenic and other toxic substances into the land.”
Again from Less is More, “We like to think of capitalism as a system that’s built on rational efficiency, but in reality it is exactly the opposite. Planned obsolescence is a form of intentional inefficiency. The inefficiency is (bizarrely) rational in terms of maximizing profits, but from the perspective of human need, and from the perspective of ecology, it is madness: madness in terms of the resources it wastes, and madness in terms of the needless energy it consumes. It is madness too in terms of human labour…”
Others have called planned obsolescence a corporate crime against the environment.
A second article is to follow, describing efforts to reduce or eliminate planned obsolescence.