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Planned Obsolescence: Buying into Consumerism


Clement Wong

By

October 7th, 2012


Consumerism is the tendency to gratify oneself and consume in ever increasing amounts.


Consumerism is the tendency to gratify oneself and consume in ever increasing amounts. To that end, planned obsolescence acts as the lynchpin for consumerist behaviour in durable goods, enabling frequent repurchasing and replacement of goods that would otherwise have lasted for much longer. Removed from each individual’s purchasing decision and viewed collectively, this ceaseless consumption is argued to be unethical and unsustainable. Others however, see it as a vital cog in the machine we call the macroeconomy. What can be done with planned obsolescence, or more pertinently, should anything be done at all?

The practical implementation of planned obsolescence elicits ethical concerns. Electing to use planned obsolescence in its functional sense involves engineers sabotaging their designs, rendering them dysfunctional prematurely[1]. Additionally, frequent product renewal cycles encourage restriction of the full (and by nature, unpredictable) flow of innovation to an artificially consistent trickle. It also requires the concerted effort of marketing to belittle the existing products on the market, reducing consumer satisfaction as a means to spur the purchase of the newest available goods. While in service of the firm’s profits and survival, the conduct of its employees to achieve this end is certainly questionable.

When considering how ‘green’ one’s lifestyle is, many first think about their method of transportation, their energy usage, and their recycling bin. Not everyone considers their consumption of durable goods as part of their environmental footprint. With electronics being one of the product categories most affected by planned obsolescence, the disposal of old, undesirable and (only sometimes) dysfunctional electronics has caused a significant impact on the environment[2]. Indeed, the problem of electronic waste, or e-waste has contributed greatly to many dangerous and toxic landfills in countries like China, India and Ghana. While an indirect effect of planned obsolescence, our blasé attitude towards regularly disposing unwanted goods certainly exacerbates the environmental problem.

One of many landfills full of e-waste in Ghana (Source: Flickr)

Thus, it is amidst these issues that anti-consumerism picks a bone against planned obsolescence. The damage it contributes to the environment is significant, and the conspicuous consumption it cultivates among us is precisely that which anti-consumerism fights against. Movements like degrowth and its proponent Serge Latouche argue that current consumption levels are already unsustainable, and that modern economics’ focus on continued growth in the economy is therefore fallacious[3]. They instead suggest downsizing our voracious consumption, aiming to shift the focus and desires of society off of ever-increasing ownership for the sake of the environment.

This contrarian and thrifty take on modern society’s consumption habits certainly ring hollow to many. To abolish planned obsolescence – or to fight consumerism in general, is to take the wind out of our economy’s sails. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (as an economist will suffice,) to see that choking out consumption is certain to send the economy into depression and create unemployment on a massive scale. Ironically, it was this exact context where planned obsolescence was first formally devised by Bernard London as a solution to the Great Depression in the 1930s.

That said, the concerns of anti-consumerists are not to be dismissed entirely. Sustainability is indeed an issue that must and should be faced sooner rather than later. While public awareness and education on our irresponsibly paced consumption and its effect on the environment is perhaps greater than it ever has been, recognition of the problem alone is not enough to fix it. It is at this point that I return to the Philips LED light bulb. Indeed this remarkable piece epitomises what I believe is the attitude we should adopt with regards to planned obsolescence. With a concern for the environment, the convicted consumer should vote with their wallet to seek out sustainable solutions, and signal to firms that they value ingenuity and durability, not disposability.

 

The commercial version of Philips’ LED light bulb (Source: Flickr)

Since its first documented case in the 1920s, to its adaptation, popularisation and acceptance in the 1950s, planned obsolescence has certainly become a ubiquitous element in our modern economy today. Widely applied by firms as a means to secure frequent repeat consumption and to fend off competition, planned obsolescence is too deep-rooted to painlessly remove. That said, to ignore and dismiss the issue altogether is to turn a blind eye to the ethically questionable practices involved, as well as the attrition of our environment. It should be the truly innovative products, demanded by informed and concerned consumers, and delivered by responsible and forward-thinking producers, which light the path to a sustainable future.



[1] Sharon Beder, “Is planned obsolescence socially responsible?,” Engineers Australia, November 1998, 52.

[2] Joseph Guiltinan, “Creative Destruction and Destructive Creations: Environmental Ethics and Planned Obsolescence,” Journal of Business Ethics 89, (2009): 19-28

[3] Joan Úbeda, The Light Bulb Conspiracy, directed by Cosima Dannoritzer (Barcelona: Media 3.14, 2010),

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

  • http://menghusblog.wordpress.com/ Meng Hu

    I would not repeat what I have said before, so my response will be short. I think the environmental preservation depends on consumers’ habits. Obsolescence is simply not planned because it would not be profitable, given the rise in production costs.
    We are just becoming spoiled childs, demanding more and more fashion products. Some people even throw their goods and possessions into the street (but still functioning) for whatever reason. Of course, you could say that this is stupid. Maybe. But this has nothing to do with “planned” obsolescence.

    Personally, I don’t like the american way of thinking, consumerism and the like. This makes me mad to see what China is actually becoming (chinese seem to have adopted the american way of thinking, which is really bad). I agree with all that. But we should not say that private firms are responsible for this when it is simply not true.

    • Clement Wong

      Certainly, private firms and whatever degree of planned obsolescence they partake in, is not the focal point of consumerism. I think a lot of it comes from our social attitudes towards consumption in general, and our reduced ability to be patient, etc.

      In my view, planned obsolescence is simply an effective means to fuel consumerism amongst durable goods. In that sense it is a contributor to the problem, and not the crux.

      With regards to how planned obsolescence can influence production costs, I see that as a plausible factor only when there is a significant increase in demand for those inputs. Given that we have had a strongly consumption focussed economy for so long, and that input prices have not quite spiralled out of control, it would seem that frequent product cycles are sustainable from the producer’s perspective, even if that’s not the case for the environment.

  • http://menghusblog.wordpress.com/ Meng Hu

    I agree with your first paragraph. As for the last paragraph, I think that when the demand for factors of production is increasing, the demand for inputs would also increase, because entrepreneurs need it to increase the capacity of production.

    However, if people decide to consume less and save more, this will make the credit cheaper, allowing an increase in investments, especially among the stages of production furthest from consumption (that is, the industries which produce capital goods). As a matter of fact, there will be an increase in the supply of these inputs (because they are gradually “freed” from the stages closest to consumption – that is, retailing – since people consume less); the productive resources are reallocated, and that’s why the industries located in the stages furthest from consumption will expand, while the industries located in stages close to consumption would contract. Then, the higher demand in factors of production will be offset by the increase in inputs. And only on that condition, the prices of factors of production should remain stable.

  • Monika

    Given the willingness of an increasing cohort of consumers to pay a first-of-a-kind premium even for a product that quite frankly is nothing to write home about (iPad 3…or worse, iPad mini) I think the points the author makes are very salient. Techno-snobbery or merely peer pressure in the school yard to have the latest mp3 player (which granted given Spotify is soooo last year) definitely makes planned obsolescence profitable for some types of companies.

    I personally know of situation where an IT company delayed release of new commercial software so that existing repeat clients would install the old version, and be forced to upgrade later. There were few substitutes in the market so they could do this.

    Hopefully we will see more and better products that Reduce, Reuse, Recycle innovatively (ie lets all join spotify and stop upgrading our mp3 players). Problem is, I don’t think there is enough momentum to value the three Rs.

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