Built to fail: Planned obsolescence in product design

Products previously designed to last a lifetime are only lasting a couple of years. Not only is this due to a decrease in the quality of materials to make products cheaper and more accessible for consumers, it is also due to purposefully built-in designs that make a product last for a shorter period of time. This practice has negative effects on the transition from a linear to a circular economy and different countries are currently debating bills to counter this practice.

Essentially, planned obsolescence is designing or marke­ting a product in a way that deliberately limits the lifespan of the product. This is a common business strategy used to stimulate consumers to repurchase goods sooner in order to increase the profits of the producer. There are two main categories of planned obsolescence: technological obsolescence and psychological obsolescence[1].

Technological obsolescence includes contrived durability where the lifespan of the product is artificially shortened by intentionally designing components that fits to the producers’ desired short average life span. This can be done by using inferior materials in critical areas, using suboptimal component layouts, designing tamper-resistant products in such a way that cannot be repaired, artificially disabling a functional product after a certain amount of time through its programming, or introducing new incompatible software that jeopardises the performance of old models[2].

Psychological obsolescence, on the other hand, is less about the physical functionality of the product, but more about marketing goods in a way that makes consumers feel old-fashioned or inferior for not purchasing the newest product – even though it has the same or nearly the same functionality as the old model[3].

Examples

The most famous example of planned obsolescence is the planned reduction of the lifespan of light bulbs. The average lifespan of bulbs could last around 1500-2500 hours in the 1920’s but was brought down to 1000 hours by the Phoebus Cartel. The cartel was established in 1924 because the long lifetime of bulbs was eating into sales and jeopardising the livelihood of firms. For example, companies such as OSRAM that sold 63 million bulbs in 1922-23 only sold 28 million bulbs the following year. It took a number of years to perfectly engineer bulbs that failed reliably after 1000 hours. This resulted in sales increasing from 355.7 million in 1926-27 to 420.8 million four years later[4].

When we look at recent studies, we can see a similar pattern. Cooper et al. (2014) found that washing machines are usually discarded after 6 years due to the wear of inaccessible components within the drum casing. This is at odds with the other components of washing machines, such as the structure, which can last up to 18 years. However, because the sub-assemblies were intentionally sealed within the drum casing, it prevented access of the short-lived components, forcing a new replacement[5].To further illustrate this point using broader research, when comparing the years 2000 and 2005, Wang et al. (2013) also found that Dutch electric and electronic products’ domestic lifespan – which is the period between when a product is bought and discarded including periods of storage within households – has been on the decline[6].

Harms

The environmental impacts of planned obsolescence are serious. Nearly 40% of the annual demand for steel worldwide is used to replace products that have failed. This statistic is significant, as steel has the greatest impact on industrial emissions. Shockingly, this statistic is set to rise to 80% from 2008-2050. There have been debates on whether planned obsolescence of electronics is problematic from a sustainability perspective, as newer technology are arguably more energy-efficient. Early replacement, especially for devices that are always running, such as refrigerators, is arguably the more sustainable option[7]. Bakker et al. 2014 found that due to technological advancements, the energy consumption of laptops and refrigerators has been decreasing over time. However, after taking into consideration factors like material production, processing, and transportation, the lifespan of the products still do not reach the optimal product lifespan, which is the life that the products need to last to make the transition to a replacement more environmentally sustainable[8].

Apart from environmental damages, poor quality and short-lived products can also worsen consumer debt levels and reduce consumer welfare[9]. The Eurobarometer in 2013 indicates that consumers want products to last longer. Generally, the reason consumers decide not to repair items is because they are frustrated about the difficulties and expenses[10].

Current laws surrounding planned obsolescence

One of the first successful bans on planned obsolescence happened in France. The Energy Transition for Green Growth Act enacted in 2015 made planned obsolescence an offense punishable by two years in prison and a fine of €300,000, or up to 5% of the offending company’s annual revenue. A class-action lawsuit against Apple had succeeded under this legislation, fining Apple €25 million for deliberately slowing down older iPhones’ performances through software updates, without properly informing consumers about its impacts on the phone’s performance[11].

Apart from France, there are no direct laws in the European Union to date outlawing planned obsolescence. Despite this, the European Union has been using indirect ways to fight against planned obsolescence.  For example, the EU’s New Circular Economy Action Plan (2020) aims to widen the Ecodesign Directive beyond energy-related products to counter more premature obsolescence. The EU Ecodesign Directive also includes mandatory regulations in place to enhance the “repairability and recyclability” of appliances. The requirements include making spare parts available and providing maintenance information to professional repairers. Further, the EU’s 2020 Horizon work programme has also published that independent testing programmes will be run to detect premature obsolescence practices in companies[12].

The focus on countering planned obsolescence through legislation is a positive step towards a greener and more sustainable future. Apart from that, positive efforts to counter planned obsolescence can also be seen through other channels. From a consumer-demand perspective, we have already seen a transition away from planned obsolescence, especially in the clothing industry. There has been a decline in fast-fashion consumption as consumers transition towards purchasing investment pieces instead of fast-fashion, due to the realisation of the negative impacts that physiological obsolescence can have on the environment[13]. Further, we also see a rise of companies directly countering the practice of planned obsolescence. For example, Fairphone is a company that sells modular phones including its components, allowing consumers to repair and upgrade their phones as they wish[14]. Ultimately, the transition to a cleaner and more sustainable future is on its way.


[1] Malinauskaite, J Erdem, F B 2021, ‘Planned Obsolescence in the Context of a Holistic Legal Sphere and the Circular Economy’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 00, No. 0 pp. 1–31

[2] Thakur, V 2020, ‘Planned Obsolescence; Why Are Things Built to Fail?’, Science ABC, viewed 5 May 2021, https://www.scienceabc.com/innovation/planned-obsolescence-things-built-fail.html

[3] Malinauskaite, J Erdem, F B 2021, ‘Planned Obsolescence in the Context of a Holistic Legal Sphere and the Circular Economy’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 00, No. 0 pp. 1–31

[4] Krajewski, M 2014, ‘The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy’, IEEE Spectrum, viewed 3 May 2021, https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-history/dawn-of-electronics/the-great-lightbulb-conspiracy

[5] Cooper, DR Skelton, AC.H. Moynihan, MC, Allwood, JM 2014, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, ‘Component level strategies for exploiting the lifespan of steel in products’, Vol. 84, pp. 24-34

[6] Cited in Bakker, C Wang, F Huisman, J Hollander, MD 2014, ‘Products that go round: exploring product life extension through design’, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 69, No. 15, pp. 10-16

[7] Cooper, DR Skelton, AC.H. Moynihan, MC, Allwood, JM 2014, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, ‘Component level strategies for exploiting the lifespan of steel in products’, Vol. 84, pp. 24-34

[8] Bakker, C Wang, F Huisman, J Hollander, MD 2014, ‘Products that go round: exploring product life extension through design’, Journal of Cleaner Production, Vol. 69, No. 15, pp. 10-16

[9] Malinauskaite, J Erdem, F B 2021, ‘Planned Obsolescence in the Context of a Holistic Legal Sphere and the Circular Economy’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 00, No. 0 pp. 1–31

[10] European Economic and Social Committee 2016, EESC Study on Planned Obsolescence, fact sheet, viewed 3 May 2021, https://www.eesc.europa.eu/resources/docs/factsheet-en.pdf

[11] Malinauskaite, J Erdem, F B 2021, ‘Planned Obsolescence in the Context of a Holistic Legal Sphere and the Circular Economy’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 00, No. 0 pp. 1–31

[12] Malinauskaite, J Erdem, F B 2021, ‘Planned Obsolescence in the Context of a Holistic Legal Sphere and the Circular Economy’, Oxford Journal of Legal Studies, Vol. 00, No. 0 pp. 1–31

[13] Kennedy, JM 2021, ‘The Fast Decline of Fast Fashion’, PIBE, viewed 4 May 2021, https://www.pibemagazine.com/fashion/the-fast-decline-of-fast-fashion

[14] Fairphone 2021, Long Lasting Design, viewed 4 May 2021, https://www.fairphone.com/en/impact/long-lasting-design/