Earlier this month, I flicked on the lights in my bathroom and sighed as one of the bulbs over the sink failed to blink on. As I made what feels like a yearly trek to my local home improvement store to buy the specially sized lightbulbs for that fixture, I wondered why they burn out so quickly. Hadn’t technological advances led to the advent of better, longer-lasting lightbulbs a long time ago?
Still mulling over this question after I changed the bulb, I did a bit of research and came across a documentary called “The Lightbulb Conspiracy,” which discusses a lightbulb that’s been continually burning in the Livermore, California fire station for over 115 years. If this bulb is still working after a century, why won’t my expensive bathroom bulbs last more than a year or two?
The answer, it turns out, may be because of a strategy called “planned obsolescence.”
An industry term used by marketers and manufacturers, planned obsolescence is the practice of making a product out-of-date or archaic within a specific period. It’s done by introducing a newer, “better,” or more fashionable version, or by intentionally designing the product to break and become useless quickly. Planned obsolescence spurs consumer demand and ensures future sales. It also means that we’re sending our stuff to the landfill at an increasingly alarming rate and spending money to frequently replace items that used to last decades or even a lifetime.
The History of Planned Obsolescence
The concept of planned obsolescence originated in 1929, when Alfred P. Sloan, the president of General Motors, and Charles Kettering, GM’s head of research, realized that the car market in the United States was near saturation. Almost every family in the country that wanted to own a car already did. To stay profitable, manufacturers like GM needed to start selling new cars to people who already had cars. To do this, Kettering proposed that they generate dissatisfaction in these car owners by offering newer models of these vehicles, creating demand and thus driving up sales.
With this in mind, GM began updating the look of their cars, fitting new exteriors over the tried-and-true chassis of their existing models and adding new features and tweaks to the interiors. So began the model-year changeover, where every single year, a vehicle undergoes some design change to differentiate it from the vehicle of the same name that was sold the year before. This strategy was so successful that by the time Sloan retired from head of the company in 1956, fully half of the cars sold in the United States each year were made by GM.
Other companies and manufacturers quickly realized the secret to GM’s success wasn’t simply waiting for a product to wear out or fall apart on its own, but engineering or planning a product’s demise to spur sales. This could be done either through building in a failure function or marketing newer and better versions of the product each year to drive consumer demand. Voila: planned obsolescence.
Types of Planned Obsolescence
There are three distinct kinds of planned obsolescence, and companies often use one or more of these strategies to get us to part with our belongings and upgrade to newer, different versions more frequently than is strictly necessary.
1. Obsolescence of Function
Functional obsolescence comes with the advent of the “new and improved” version of a product that functions better than its predecessor. Whether it’s through a new design, added features, or technological advances, functional obsolescence is furthered by companies through the guise of making our lives better.
However, there are plenty of instances in which the function of a newer product is only marginally better than the old one. For example, if the newer model of a washing machine claims to be more energy-efficient than last year’s model, it’s worth examining exactly how much more efficient the machine is before you blithely hit “buy” and send your old one to the landfill. Unless the new version of any given product will save you at least 50% more energy or water, you’re probably better off just keeping the old one. Minute gains in efficiency are not worth the environmental cost of disposing of a perfectly good, still-functioning product. The earth and your wallet are better off if you just keep the one you already own.
Functional obsolescence can also spur manufacturers to implement some unusual design choices in the name of upgrading their products. Anyone who’s ridden in the front seat of a car from the mid-1990s has probably experienced a close call with decapitation by the automatic seat belt strap. This feature was popular with car manufacturers for a few years and introduced as a fun new function, but it wasn’t actually a desirable upgrade and quickly went the way of the Ford Edsel.
Approach technological advances that purport to improve function with caution. Instead of truly revolutionary design and functionality, tech companies often make tiny tweaks they then roll out as the latest must-have. Apple, for example, released the iPad 3 in March of 2012, and the iPad 4 made its debut in December of the same year. Critics question how much more functionality the company was able to develop and install in a device in eight short months. Were there really enough changes and updates to merit a brand-new version of the device, or was Apple merely creating functional obsolescence?
2. Obsolescence of Quality
Quality obsolescence occurs when an item ceases to work, necessitating the purchase of a newer version of that item. That sounds pretty harmless, until you realize that manufacturers are often accused of purposefully making items like cell phones and lightbulbs so that they only last a few years when they could – if made with better or with more easily interchangeable parts – last much longer.
Think about it: You’re probably replacing your smartphone every year or two as the battery starts to fail and won’t hold a charge for as long, or as your storage fills because new apps and peripherals take up more and more space. Many phone manufacturers, Apple chief among them, have come under fire for designing phones in a way that prohibits the consumer from simply buying a new battery or replacing RAM as needed. Instead of switching out parts, we’re forced to buy an entirely new device.
If your car battery stopped working, you wouldn’t shrug your shoulders and go buy a new car. But for some products, consumers been conditioned to replace the entire thing as soon as one part breaks. We are at the mercy of the company that makes the product, whether it’s a cell phone, home printer, or even a toaster oven. In 2011, Apple switched to a proprietary, specialized screw design called the “Pentalobe,” which is shaped like a flower and impossible to access unless you have a pentalobe-shaped screwdriver – not exactly a tool most of us have in our toolbox.
If companies are intentionally shortening the lifespan of a specific part of a product, or constructing the item so that consumers can’t open it up and replace that part, but instead have to buy an entirely new version of the product, that’s quality obsolescence in action.
3. Obsolescence of Desirability
A hallmark of many industries, the obsolescence of desirability is when a newer, trendier version of something is released and your current product – whether it’s bootcut jeans, a cathode-ray tube television, or a boxy sedan – looks old and outdated in comparison.
Style changes are the main driver of the fashion industry. How do you get people to discard perfectly good clothing they already own and instead go out and buy new stuff? You change what is and isn’t “fashionable.” Designers aren’t revolutionizing how people wear shirts; they’re just changing colors and patterns to make their new shirts more appealing than the ones already sitting at home on your shelf.
And the obsolescence of desirability isn’t confined to the fashion industry. Just like Sloan and Kettering did way back in the 1930s, manufacturers today change the look and features of their products to drive us to replace perfectly good items just because they’re no longer the latest style. Consider homeowners replacing black-and-white, plastic-front appliances with the more trendy stainless steel, or ripping out Formica countertops to replace them with granite or butcher block. These materials and finishes are considered trendier, in part because of the plethora of design and renovation shows that feature them. So people are choosing to “upgrade” and discard the older, working-but-now-outdated versions their kitchens came with because these materials and product finishes are no longer desirable.
Is Planned Obsolescence Ever Good?
At this point, you may feel like planned obsolescence is a terrible ploy used by marketers to make us all broke, wasteful consumers. However, there are a few upsides to obsolescence that are worth considering.
For one, if every single thing we used and consumed was made to last for decades or centuries, progress would grind to a halt. There would be no demand for innovation or new ideas because companies would have no incentive to continually look for better ways to design or manufacture the items we use every day. Without innovation, we’d all still be calling each other on our landlines and sending floppy discs of information back and forth through interoffice mail, instead of shooting off texts and emails with our smartphones.
Innovation can also spur marketplace competition. Following the gas crisis of the 1970s, Americans began buying Japanese- and German-manufactured cars because they were more efficient and had better mileage than the gas-guzzling American counterparts that were bankrupting people at the pumps. To compete, American manufacturers began to develop and bring to market their own fuel-efficient vehicles, which led to a greater freedom of choice for car buyers. When it’s done right, obsolescence spurs new ideas, better technology, and artistic expression that can make consumers’ lives better.
How to Fight Planned Obsolescence
While it can be a force for good in terms of innovation and design, when left unchecked, planned obsolescence is still a threat to our budgets and our planet. So what can the average consumer do to fight this ploy?
1. Do Your Homework
Before you make a purchase, read reviews of the product online to see if the model you’re looking at has a short lifespan. Do people complain about how quickly it breaks or becomes useless? Does it look like the company releases a new version every single year, or even more frequently, in the name of “progress”? If so, skip it.
2. Get Recommendations
Talk to a repair shop in your area to see which models of a car, vacuum cleaner, or lawnmower they like best. These businesses work on the best and worst versions of these products, so they’ll probably be able to tell you which ones to avoid and which they’d buy for themselves.
Also get suggestions from trusted friends and online reviews, taking special note of how long people have owned the item or device. A little extra research could save you a lot of money and hassle.
3. Make Your Things Last
Once you own an item, try to keep it for a long time by taking care of it and repairing it instead of simply replacing it with a newer version. If you’re at all handy or willing to DIY some repairs, there are a plethora of tutorials online for a wide variety of products, from YouTube videos to websites like Fix Your Own Printer to articles on how to repair shoes and clothing. Repairing or refreshing something before you toss it will be better for your wallet and the environment.
If your closet is full of wide-leg pants and you want something with a narrower silhouette, consider having your clothes altered, or doing it yourself, before you send them to the landfill. If you think a favorite jacket or dress might come back in fashion, and you have the space, pack it away with some cedar sachets and store it for a while. The only thing cooler than the newest style is an authentic, vintage version of it.
4. Examine Your Motivations
Finally, think about why you want something new. If your possessions are still in good working order, but you’re tempted to upgrade to a newer, flashier version of something, practice conscious decision-making instead. Resist the gut reaction and create some barriers for yourself to help make spending a little more mindful.
Ask yourself why you want to buy the new version of a product. Evaluate your budget to ensure that it won’t derail your spending or cause you to miss out on something else you might be saving for. Figure out how you’ll responsibly dispose of the item you’re replacing, whether that’s re-selling it, recycling it, or donating it to an appropriate organization. Once you’ve walked yourself through each of these questions, you might find that you no longer want the new product anymore. If you still do, you can buy it knowing that you’ve been mindful about the process.
Innovation, better design, and technological advances are the forces that improve our lives and make our world a better, easier place to live. However, there can be too much of a good thing, especially if you’re wasting money blithely buying newer versions of clothing, household goods, and electronics when the things you already own still function perfectly well. Understanding obsolescence of function, quality, and desirability will help you be a more informed, environmentally conscious consumer.
Have you ever upgraded to the latest version of a computer or smartphone when your current one worked just fine? How much would you pay for a lightbulb you never had to replace? Can you think of other examples of functional obsolescence in your life?