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Planned Obsolescence

Mon, 07 Dec 2020 21:37:09 +0000

Planned Obsolescence

When I was 14 years old my parents and I travelled to the south of Brazil to help run a Christian mission. As my dad worked as a dentist there and my mum helped distribute food around, I spent my days playing table tennis with the kids and experiencing my first culture shock.

One day we were on a van packed with priests and nuns driving out of town. The van broke down, so we had to stop at a mechanic. At the shop, the priest had a heated conversation with the mechanic which we witnessed in silence and bemusement.

After the van got fixed and we all got back in, my father asked what that was all about. The priest explained that what had happened was a common occurrence in that part of the country: when something in your car needed fixing, you would stop at the first shop you’d see. There, the mechanic would work on your vehicle and make sure it would run just long enough for you to get to the next shop. Then it would break down again, and you’d be forced to stop to the next mechanic. This way, the first mechanic would provide work for the next mechanic.

Although retrospectively this is probably not a scam but a way to work together in a context where it’s hard to get work, for some reason this episode came to mind when I came across the concept of Planned Obsolescence.

I first heard of this term on the Sustainable Minimalists podcast, and I realised I knew about this concept all along but I didn’t know it had a name.

According to Wikipedia, Planned Obsolescence is:

 […] a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life or a purposely frail design, so that it becomes obsolete (i.e., unfashionable, or no longer functional) after a certain period of time.

 It basically means to deliberately shorten the lifespan of a product so that consumers are forced to buy a replacement before it should/could be needed.

Planned Obsolescence is achieved through different strategies (again, thanks Wikipedia), but my favourites are:

  • Contrived durability: When a products is deliberately designed to deteriorate quickly.

  • Prevention of repairs: When you can’t buy parts to fix your device so you have to buy an entire new product , or the cost of repairing is higher than buying a new products.

  • Non-user-replaceable parts : When you can’t get into your device with commonly-owned tools, so you need a professional to fix it (which might not be doable anyway).

  • Perceived Obsolescence: When a new version of a products is design with a new style that makes your old (perfectly functioning) device look outdated.

Just in case you were wondering, none of these strategies is ARE prohibited by law (but some regulations exist - see below).

As someone who tries to buy as little as possible, who believes in repairing and making things last, and wants to support brands that manufacture quality, durable products, you can imagine how this concept drives me bonkers. 

Planned Obsolescence is a build-to-fail policy that aims at increasing consumption, and feeds into the culture of disposability and consumerism. It’s the opposite of Circular Economy and it creates a mixture of constantly wanting more and literally not being able to use things that are not even that old.

To me personally, it’s both outrageously enraging and incredible depressing.

It makes me question what it even means to live a sustainable life as a small individual, composting and refusing straws and eating plants, when global corporations that have the power to steer away from a linear economy deliberately choose profit over sustainability.

What’s the point of choosing cardboard over plastic when (and I quote):

Every year, up to 50 million tons of electronic waste are generated, a very high percentage of which – around 85% - is usually discarded randomly, ending up in waste tips in developing countries, creating a risk for the environment and the health of people, animals and plants.

I know.

But not everything is bad news. It’s important that we look at the bright side - and yes, there is one.

First of all, let me point out that the European Union is actually taking action against Planned Obsolescence.
The first legislature that recognised the existence of Planned Obsolescence was the French National Assembly in 2015. Since then, the EU has introduced regulations that require manufacturers to declare the lifespan of a product and a two-year warranty must be provided.
Regulations around repair of electronic devices have been introduced, as well as initiatives to reduce e-waste.
Certifications and fiscal incentives are being put forward for companies that produce environmentally-respectful goods and services, based on  factors like quality, durability, ease of repair, contribution to emissions reduction and correct waste management.
Some countries, like France and Spain, now have fines and prison sentences aimed at manufacturers who don’t comply with regulations on the lifespan of their products.

As individuals, we can also take actions. We can:

  • Be aware
    The first step is to be aware of the fact that Planned Obsolescence exists: understand that there is a reason why your iPhone won’t allow you to upgrade to the latest software right after the two-year warranty has expired, why you are not able to find a replacement part for your washing machine, why your old phone charger won’t fit into your new phone, why it’s cheaper to but a whole new printer than a new toner.

  • Do without
    We should also take a moment to reflect on the fact that most things that are marketed to us aren’t actually necessary. Buying less creates less demand and it’s a great way to reduce waste by simply having fewer things that will eventually break.
    Along the same lines, avoiding the latest trends and accepting that owning the latest gadgets won’t make us cool is also a great way to fight against perceived obsolescence. 

  • DIY
    Repairing what we can prolongs the life of our possessions, and sets us up with some useful skills! When something breaks, repairing should always be the first option before repurposing, recycling or disposing.

  • Support brands that do the right thing
    There are heaps of companies out there that do believe in repairing, reusing and repurposing their products. I own items from Patagonia, Birkenstock and Blundstone that have lasted me for years - and these are just some examples of brands that design durable, good quality products made to last and that are easy to repair.

I know this was a lot and I hope it wasn’t too overwhelming. But I also hope I have planted a little seed of both rage and curiosity about Planned Obsolescence, and that I have inspired you to take action, even if it’s small, even if it’s just reflecting upon it.

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