The Trouble With Planned Obsolescence

Devin Morrissey - Contributing Author

Posted on Tuesday 6th February 2018


One of the most troubling trends of the modern world is planned obsolescence, which refers to the way in which manufacturers design products specifically so that they do not have longevity. For a company with plans to continually and consistently sell more of essentially the same product, one of the best ways to keep consumer demand up is to limit the ability of their product to function in the future.

But for those who are invested in a green future, this is problematic; it’s problematic because of the weight of sustainability conflicts with the idea that we can continue to ignore consumer responsibility, and that it is morally appropriate to create consumer goods with a limited amount of use.

Instead, we must wholeheartedly embrace a future wherein we acknowledge that the lifespan of consumer products and sustainability are brothers, and we promote that reality with our behavior.

Planned Obsolescence and the Modern Product Cycle

One does not have to look far to see a clear indication that planned obsolescence is a major component of the current marketplace. Shona Ghosh reported for Business Insider that Apple, a king of commerce, has been hit by two class action lawsuits for admitting they have intentionally slowed older iPhones down. In one of the lawsuits, five Chicago-based customers cited the practice as “deceptive, immoral and unethical.”

While Apple is a timely example, they can by no means claim the invention of planned obsolescence as a business model. It’s a practice that has been utilized for decades across virtually all industries.

The Positives

Planned obsolescence in and of itself is not necessarily a negative thing. The nature of the system does lead to some beneficial consequences for consumers.

As Philip Kotler told The Economist, “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.”

Thus, there is value in recognizing that it does have its place in terms of its abilities to promote better products.

As the business asset experts at Asset Panda note, “The perception among some is that planned obsolescence is a sneaky practice designed to keep us buying. From a manufacturer’s and marketer’s perspective, though, planned obsolescence is about an ongoing commitment to innovation – and consumers expect innovation.”

Green inventions can be described as innovations that may never have entered the scene without the competitive nature of their respective industries

The Roles That Consumers Play

The obvious tension lies in the fact that we want manufacturers to do what they say they’re going to do; we want our rights as consumers to be protected. But we also need to take responsibility for producing the demand.

Collaborative economy expert Rachel Botsman told The Guardian, “It’s almost unbelievable that consumers haven’t stood up and said the planned obsolescence of the gadget industry is absolutely obscene and not serving them. But it’s because no one has yet cracked a subscription model to electronics that takes the responsibility away from the consumer and puts it on the company to provide better products.”

Again, technology is not the only industry where this happens, but a fairly easy one to recognize the issues. The reality though, is that if manufacturers are vying for customer attention, they’re also likely vying to hold that attention by consistently producing a newer, better version of their product.

When Marylhurst University overviewed the challenge businesses face of balancing sustainability with profitability, they found that over half of consumers are willing to pay more for the products produced by sustainable companies — which means that while there’s a lot of distance to go yet, the fundamentals of consumer trends is changing.

Sustainable Models of Production Matter

While the debate in terms of where the burden of responsibility falls may never be completely solved, what is true is that manufacturers are producing goods that become obsolete because it is a business model that works; it produces profitability.

So for consumers striving towards a greener future, disrupting the current trend is the way to go. Obviously, this should begin at the ground level. That means that when sustainable choices can be made, it makes sense to support those who are providing the option. There are ethical and sustainable options for smartphones and clothing, for example.

Beyond that though, one of the most effective ways for consumers to change the current models of production into sustainable versions is by incorporating reuse and recycling.

Reuse in Your Own Home

For the western consumer, you can take a great many measures right in your own home.

Recycle gadgets: Only 12 percent of smartphone upgrades include the older phone being traded or sold. Make that number larger by recycling the phones and computers that you do have sitting around.

Repurpose common items: If you have it in your home, and it no longer serves the purpose it once did, but it seems like it could be repurposed, it likely can be. Not only that, it’s likely that someone has already done the hard work for you and come up with a way to repurpose the item. If monks can make a temple from beer bottles, you can find good use for them, too.

Reuse clothing: Don’t throw old clothes out, donate them to those in need! Additionally, thrifting clothing when you do need replacement wardrobe is now easier than ever before. Thrift and consignment stores are all the rage, and make it convenient to give clothing a second life.

Sustainability Across the Globe

It’s important to recognize that if you live in the west your buying choices do have global implications. The products we buy in North America are often imported from second and third world countries, where workers’ rights and sustainable manufacturing often take a backseat to the bottom line.

It’s also important to utilize the resources we have to impact those beyond our immediate circles. For many, sustainability isn’t a priority simply because there is little understanding surrounding it. But when awareness happens, so does a shift in behavior.

While Clarice Bayne, an Arizona State University student had dedicated her college career to pursuing a degree in sustainability, it wasn’t until she made a journey with the Peace Corps to build sustainable infrastructure in the Dominican Republic that her perception seriously shifted.

She noted that the experience, “made her learn not to take advantage of anything, even fresh water. Since returning home she has changed many daily routines to ensure she isn’t wasteful and she is more thankful.”

It’s an experience we can all have; volunteering for organizations like the Foundation for Sustainable Development is an optimal way to see why something as simple as recycling matters and that it matters far beyond our own neighborhoods.

It can be disheartening to see how well-planned obsolescence works; we’ve all seen the long lines consumers are willing to stand in to purchase something only vaguely distinct from what they already own. However, the ability and the agency that rests in the hands of the individual consumer should never be forgotten.

Instead, we would all do well to recognize our own potential to shift not just the modern marketplace, but also the expectations and perceptions of those around us. We all have the power to buy or not to buy, to reuse or not to reuse. And perhaps even more significantly, we all have the ability to have conversations, to thoughtfully share with our neighbors our love for the planet as well as the things that will ensure it’s health in the long run.



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