Planned Obsolescence: Weapon of Mass Discarding or Catalyst for Progress? – Hannah Berry

Emitting a dim yellow glow in a fire station in Livermore, California, the Centennial Light has burned for a record-breaking 115 years since it was first turned on in 1901. Fast forward an entire century, and light bulbs are burning out and being replaced within months. If a light bulb designed in the 19th century can last for over one hundred years, why, in the late 20th and early 21st century, have light bulbs tended to last no more than a few months? The answer is planned obsolescence, a by-product of modern capitalism.

Frequent changes in design; society’s views on fashion and trends; the focus on ‘replace over repair’ of goods and an astronomical use of non-durable material, are the largest contributors to planned obsolescence; a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing. Although believed by economists to be a social necessity for driving technological advancement and innovation, planned obsolescence is unsustainable for the future. Such a policy fuels the society’s damaging consumerist culture and wasteful attitudes, leading to high manufacturing demands, production of waste, natural resource depletion and damaging repercussions on consumers.

One of the most obvious injustices of planned obsolescence is the heavy burden it places on consumers. With the assistance of media, advertising and design changes, manufacturers are frequently introducing new changes in fashion and influencing consumers’ decisions and perceptions of styles which are deemed fashionable or trendy and forces them to believe they must have these products. Fashion of any sort is a classic example of ‘perceived’ obsolescence: consumers are manipulated to believe that a seasonal fashion or certain clothing is no longer in style, so they must be replaced by new garments. This results in the large waste of an increasing amount of items at a high financial cost to the consumer.

This lifestyle has tremendous financial costs for consumers. Often equipment that needs repaired will become obsolete as the price for repair is higher or comparable to the price of replacing the item altogether, or the service or parts are no longer available, resulting in the consumer having no choice but to replace the item, rendering it dysfunctional. For example, major corporations such as Apple and Samsung are now designing their smartphones so there is no access to the battery inside the phone so it is difficult to replace the battery, making the item functionally obsolete. Other examples include the updating of software or designs which make the older versions incompatible with the new advancement, forcing the previous version to become functionally obsolete and forcing the consumer to invest in the new updates.

Over the past few decades, the expected lifespan of products has drastically diminished, so that most consumers today purchase products with the expectation that they will need to be replaced within a couple of years. In an attempt to boost the economy after the World Wars, retailing analyst Victor Lebow articulated the solution that has become the norm for the whole system, he said: “Our enormously productive economy… demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption… we need things consumed, burned up, replaced, discarded at an ever-accelerating pace.” (Lebow, 1955)

Since its first documented case in the 1920s during the Great Depression, to its adaptation, popularisation and acceptance over the decades, consumers have become acclimated to the practices of planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence should not be normalised by society; this results in turning a blind eye on the ethically questionable practices and the destruction of the environment.

An even more serious concern, due to consumerist attitudes and our acceptance of the practice of planned obsolescence throughout society, is that the overall demand for the manufacturing of these products is rapidly increasing, thus the overall demand for the Earth’s finite resources is subsequently rising. Studies from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) found that global extraction of materials has tripled since 1970, and not once in the last 40 years has materials extraction declined, even during times of recession and economic crisis. In the past three decades alone, one third of the planet’s natural resources have been consumed. We are cutting, mining, hauling and trashing the place so fast that we are undermining the planet’s very capacity to support human life adequately. By continuing to intentionally limit the useful lifespan of a product by making it unfashionable or no longer functional, manufacturers are creating a significant driving factor to unsustainable attitudes and practices, depleting the planet of its precious, finite resources.

Consumers often view planned obsolescence as a cynical plot by manufacturers and corporations to boost sales and profits while the consumer and the environment pays the price. Arguably, those in support of the planned obsolescence strategy believe it to be the catalyst and driving force for progress and technological advancement. When a new technology is developed, many previous inventions become obsolete. This could bring about truly innovative products, like the advancement of horse and carriage transportation to automobiles, or the typewriter to the computer. However, far too often, planned obsolescence is too easily justified by a slightly sharper camera phone, or slightly more memory, or a new operating system that confuses as much as it simplifies. Do we ‘really’ need these things?

Plastic water bottles, cutlery, plates, cups, razors and bags, seen in the countryside or on the streets or dumped in the landfill: today, we live in a ‘throw-away society’; a culture of over consumption and excessive production of short-lived or disposable products. Planned obsolescence is the leading cause of our wasteful consumer habits and the constant manufacturing of these unnecessary products contributes greatly to pollution, which affects the water we drink and the air we breathe. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) found that only 1% of the products we buy are still in use as little as six months after their date of sale. In other words, 99% of our consumption is trashed within six months. The products themselves end up in landfills, taking up precious space that is often at a premium. According to the UNEP, E-waste, or discarded electronic appliances such as smart phones, computers, and televisions, is one of the fasted growing sources of waste. On average a person keeps a smartphone for 18 months, whether the battery fails, screens or buttons break or the operating systems can no longer be upgraded, the immediate solution owners turn to is not the repair of the current system, but the purchase of a brand-new device that is advertised to be ‘better than ever before’.

The disposal of waste releases harmful toxins into the air, the surrounding soil and ground water. A large majority of this waste is disposed of in landfills full of hazardous materials, often in the world’s poorer countries including Bolivia, Ghana and South Sudan. Jim Puckett, co-founder of BAN; an organisation for environmental health and Justice visited Ghana and saw teenagers and young adults working in the landfills, exposed to hazardous substances, burning discarded electronics, and releasing toxic fumes into the air. The accelerating production of so much waste due to planned obsolescence, impacts greatly on the environment, contributing to waste pollution and endangering human life, not only in the countries that produce this waste but also the developing nations.

If environmental and climate challenges are to be tackled, then the wasteful production and consumption patterns driven by planned obsolescence is not the way forward as a sustainable strategy to stave off an economic crisis. The investment in more durable items and taking steps to minimise your participation in a consumer-focused society is the way forward from a disposable and wasteful culture. Only the truly innovative products which provide significant positive advances in society, should light the path to a sustainable future.

The unsustainable practice of planned obsolescence, through the continual replacement, rather than repair, and the manufacturing of non-durable products, results in: masses of waste generation; pollution; loss of biodiversity; the rapid depletion of Earth’s precious resources; and high financial costs for consumers. These challenges must be tackled to move forward towards a sustainable future and can only be achieved by rendering planned obsolescence obsolete.



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