The dark side of consumerism: planned obsolescence

The dark side of consumerism: planned obsolescence

In the age of rapid technological advancement and ever-changing consumer preferences, it’s no secret that products have shorter lifespans than they once did. This phenomenon, known as planned obsolescence, has become an integral part of our modern consumer culture. While it may seem like a clever business strategy for manufacturers, it raises ethical and environmental concerns that demand our attention.

Planned obsolescence is a policy of designing or planning a product with a limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete after a certain pre-determined period of time upon which it decrementally functions or suddenly 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 (referred to as “shortening the replacement cycle”) .

The system tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly. In the past, the producer has to know that the customer is at least somewhat likely to buy a replacement from them in the form of brand loyalty. In these cases of planned obsolescence, there is an information asymmetry between the producer, who knows how long the product was designed to last, and the customer, who does not. When a market becomes more competitive, product lifespans tend to increase. 

Planned obsolescence has a negative impact on the environment and consumers. It leads to increased waste and pollution and can be seen as an unethical business practice. However, some argue that planned obsolescence can be beneficial for consumers by providing them with new features and technologies that they would not have access to otherwise.

This strategy serves several purposes for manufacturers, including driving sales, maintaining market dominance, and fostering consumer dependence on new products.

The History of planned obsolescence

The concept of planned obsolescence dates back to the early 20th century, gaining prominence in the 1920s with the advent of mass production and consumerism. Manufacturers realized that by intentionally limiting the lifespan of their products, they could ensure a constant demand for replacements. This concept was famously articulated by Bernard London in his 1932 essay, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence,” where he proposed government-mandated product expiration dates to stimulate economic growth.

This occurs when products are designed to become obsolete due to wear and tear, making them difficult or costly to repair. Examples include smartphones with sealed batteries and non-upgradeable components. The strategy involves the rapid advancement of technology, rendering older products incompatible with newer ones. An example is software updates that no longer support older hardware.

While planned obsolescence may seem beneficial to manufacturers, the practice is unsustainable in the long term, as it depletes finite resources and harms the planet.

In response to the detrimental effects of planned obsolescence, there has been a growing movement advocating for change. Some countries have implemented legislation to combat planned obsolescence. France, for instance, passed a law in 2015 requiring manufacturers to inform consumers of a product’s estimated lifespan and to provide repairability information. Some organizations and individuals are promoting the right to repair, advocating for easier access to spare parts and repair manuals for consumers and third-party repair shops, while many companies are embracing sustainable design practices, creating products with longer lifespans, user-replaceable parts, and modular designs.

Fortnately, people are making more conscious purchasing decisions and supporting brands that prioritize durability and sustainability. As consumers, we have the power to make choices that support products designed for longevity and sustainability, ultimately challenging the status quo and promoting a more sustainable future for our planet.

Federico Di Mattia