Planned obsolescence, a driver of consumerism?
The useful life of products is getting shorter and shorter, and we are forced to replace them compulsively. This is what is known as planned obsolescence. But is the premature death of products really the engine of the market?
Welcome to Livermore, California. This is where we find the world’s longest-lived light bulb, located in the township’s fire department. It was manufactured in Shelby, Ohio, around 1895, and its filament is an invention of Adolphe Chaillet, created expressly to last.
The image of the bulb can be seen on the internet 24 hours a day and has already outlasted three webcams so far. A few years ago, in 1871, the inventor of the light bulb, Thomas A. Edison, succeeded in producing a small light bulb with a comparatively enormous resistance, which in 1881 achieved a lifecycle of 1,500 hours.
A few years later, in 1924, a group of men met in Geneva with a secret plan: to create the first cartel to control the world’s light bulb production and share the profits. The cartel was called Phoebus and was made up of major light bulb manufacturers from Europe, the United States, and even the colonies in Asia and Africa. At the time, Phoebus proudly advertised a life of up to 2,500 hours for its bulbs.
Despite advances in science, Phoebus’ milestone was cut short the following year by the “1,000 Hour Life Committee”, set up to technically reduce the life of light bulbs. Phillips (Holland), General Electric (USA), OSRAM (Germany) and Lámparas Zeta (Spain), among others, formed part of this committee.
Why is the life of products being shortened?
Obsolescence is the depreciation of products as a result of technical progress. Following this idea, planned or programmed obsolescence is the reprehensible practice of companies and manufacturers to offer products with inferior features and qualities to the technology available. The aim is that these objects cease to function after a certain period of time and that the consumer is forced to replace them.
The main reason why companies design products with planned obsolescence in mind has to do, of course, with the argument that it increases sales. An article in Printers Ink, an advertising manual from 1928, already argued how “an article that does not spoil is a tragedy for business“. Therefore, the main cause of the rise of planned obsolescence has been, after all, the very economic system that governs our societies. An economic system based on growth economics, where the logic is not to grow to satisfy needs, but to increase profits.
In short, businessmen will say: an economic system based on growth, obviously, has no future without growth; and, therefore, if the consumer does not buy, the economy does not grow. Industrial designer Brooks Stevens, often cited as the inventor of planned obsolescence, defined it as “the need to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary“, although his idea was to make the consumer always want something new, rather than to create low-quality products that must be continually replaced.
Is an economy without planned obsolescence viable?
There may be an alternative to planned obsolescence, but only if it is supported by the administration and the business community. In Catalonia there are already several initiatives that seek to reduce the impact of planned obsolescence. This is the case of the Catalan association Millor Que Nou, which promotes repairs and exchanges as an alternative to generating more technological waste.
On the other hand, the Fundació Energia i Innovació Sostenible (Feniss) concluded that a family of four could save 50,000 euros over a lifetime if household appliances lasted longer or were designed to be repaired. Experts explain that labelling the durability of products could help consumers make purchasing decisions.
The European Union has also taken up the issue and is committed to a model of circular economy. Technology brands have to produce goods that can be dismantled in parts that can be replaced. It is also considering creating a label for products that are easy to repair, one of the proposals of the so-called Right to Repair Act, which aims to increase the lifespan of electronic devices for a lower environmental impact and thus put an end to planned obsolescence.
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