Planned obsolescence

I accost an American sailor, and I inquire why the ships of his country are built so as to last but for a short time; he answers without hesitation that the art of navigation is every day making such rapid progress, that the finest vessel would become almost useless if it lasted beyond a certain number of years. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1840.

Planned obsolescence is not really a new concept. God used it with people. Robert Orben

The article that refuses to wear out is a tragedy of business. Advertising manual, 1928

 Much so-called planned obsolescence is the working of the competitive and technological forces in a free society—forces that lead to ever-improving goods and services. Philip Kotler, marketing guru.

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The other day TVE showed a documentary Comprar, Tirar, Comprar (Pyramids of Waste) about planned obsolescence. The tone of the programme was anti-capitalist but I suppose that is par for the course. The subject is definitely worth further consideration.

Planned obsolescence is a policy of deliberately designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete or non-functional after a certain period. The idea behind the strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases. The notion that it takes place has gained widespread credence but how real is it?

The programme made some interesting points but I think they failed to look at the benefits of the process. There was one French professor, Serge Latouche, who suggested that we could somehow stop in the 1960s. that seems absurd to me. We humans have many flaws, but we are fantastic innovators. What we should be doing is looking at more sustainable designs.

The term planned obsolescence is associated with Brooke Stevens, an American industrial designer, who used it at a talk given in 1954. However, it probably goes back two or three decades more. In 1932 Bernard London published a paper called Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence. His solutions to the crisis echo Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“I maintain that taxes should be levied on the people who are retarding progress and preventing business from functioning normally, rather than as at present on those who are cooperating and promoting progress. Therefore I propose that when a person continues to posses and use old clothing, automobiles and buildings, after they have passed their obsolescence date, as determined at the time they were created, he should be taxed for such continued use of what is legally “dead.” He could not deny that he does not posses such goods, as he might hide his income to avoid paying an income tax, because they are material things, with their date of manufacture known. Today we penalize by taxation persons who spend their money to purchase commodities, which are necessary to create business. Would it not be far more desirable to tax instead the man who is hoarding his money and keeping old and useless things? We should tax the man who holds old things for a longer time than originally allotted.”

There are important kinds of planned obsolescence:

Functional obsolescence is a type of technical obsolescence in which companies replace old technology with a newer one with more capabilities. How evil of them! Of course sometimes they try to speed up the process by making repairs to an old model nearly as expensive as buying a new model. 

Systemic obsolescence is the deliberate attempt to make a product obsolete by altering the system in which it is used in such a way as to make its continued use difficult. For example, technical support may be withdrawn.

Style obsolescence occurs when marketers change the aesthetic elements of its products so customers will purchase products more frequently. The style changes are designed to make owners want to purchase the latest version even if their one is working perfectly well.

One of the examples in the documentary is the light bulb The idea of a conspiracy to prevent the manufacture of a permanent light bulb is a perennial topic for discussion. There is a famous light bulb, the Centennial Light, which has been lighting a fire station for 104 years (911,020 hours). The documentary refers to the Phoebus cartel, which included Osram, Philips and General Electric, and whose goal was to banish ever long-lasting light bulbs from the face of the earth.

This is the stuff of great conspiracy theories but according to John Kay it is all a myth. He describes the following scenario: Imagine there are several competing producers of light bulbs. An inventor approaches one of them with his everlasting light bulb. While sales will fall when all the world’s bulbs have been replaced, until then it will enjoy a 100% market share. It would be its competitors who would be losing sales. Innovation is a fundamental part of a competitive market. What firm would be willing to let such a business opportunity escape? Kay argues that it was always possible to manufacture light bulbs that would last for many years. The problem was that the higher cost and lower efficiency made them unattractive to consumers. It is just recently that new technology has emerged that enables low energy bulbs to be manufactured at a cost close enough to that of a conventional bulb.

In what situations can companies get away with planned obsolescence? Economists tend to be very sceptical. In many cases we are the ones who demand it. The planned obsolescence isn’t necessarily because manufacturers are purposely building cheap crap that has to be replaced in a few years. I would also argue that not everything should last forever. Manufacturers suppose that you will  buy a newer model in a few years, so there isn’t any reason to spend a fortune making the product last longer than you plan to keep it – it would be absurd to have materials that lasted 15 to 20 years in a mobile phone.  We all love to nostalgically remember how things used to last much longer in the good old days but the reality is that we probably won’t be using them long enough to care. We may say we want our products to last, but our actual behaviour tells another story.

We may well need to look at the negative externalities of disposing of so much stuff. These costs may well not be reflected in the prices of many goods. Ultimately we have the power. Capitalism is very good at giving us what we want. If we hear that a company has installed a chip in a printer that will automatically stop it working after a certain number of uses, then we should boycott that product. Thomas Sowell has argued that capitalism is a misnomer:

“What is called “capitalism” might more accurately be called consumerism. It is the consumers who call the tune, and those capitalists who want to remain capitalists have to learn to dance to it.”

If we want longer-lasting products, we will get them; we have that sovereignty. Let’s make sure we use it.

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One Response to Planned obsolescence

  1. Alberto says:

    Thanks for this approach to the concept.

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