The Impact of Planned Obsolescence on Our Environment and Economy

edited August 2023 in Green

Everyone has a drawer full of unrepairable and outdated, lagging electronics. Devices you’ve accumulated over the years that simply couldn’t keep up with our fast pace of innovation. Consumer electronics have taken an enormous toll on the environment. But what if you were told that this was partly by design?

The strategy behind this is called planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is the proactive strategy of designing products so that they will inevitably fall behind the innovation curve or simply be unrepairable. Another tactic that falls under planned obsolescence is to release new software updates that are incompatible with older devices to drive the need to upgrade hardware so your device can work properly. This strategy encourages consumers to buy more often, sometimes as frequently as every couple of months.

Planned obsolescence has been observed in the automotive industry, home goods, clothing, and most notably, the consumer electronics industry. It is more of a business tactic than anything. Recently, critics have united in opposition to planned obsolescence, citing landmark cases such as Apple's as examples of how it can be harmful to both the environment and consumer rights. But not all changes are strategic attempts to deceive or make your device outdated. Sometimes, things become dysfunctional or outdated because they just grow old. It’s unreasonable to expect your ten-year-old smartphone to run smoothly or for your $15 pair of underwear to remain tear-free for years and years.

Planned obsolescence: motivations and consequences

Planned obsolescence has one goal for the company: generate consistent revenue, not from brand new customers, but from those who want to replace their current products. In the case of one of the most notorious cases of planned obsolescence, Apple took a $500m loss when it settled a class-action lawsuit regarding the alleged slowing down of their phones with age. This was a landmark case that brought the concept of planned obsolescence to the forefront of consumers’ minds.

But it’s more than a financial and convenience issue for consumers. Where do all these obsolete devices go? As more and more consumers become aware of this strategy, it’s starting to reflect poorly on companies that employ it. Yes, planned obsolescence is deceiving to consumers and dangerous for the environment, but brand images are also being damaged. So, why do they do it? Economies run on demand, and planned obsolescence is a way to drive up demand.

Types of planned obsolescence:

Broadly, planned obsolescence is a larger strategy that takes many forms. Some products utilize multiple forms of planned obsolescence. Companies can drive new demand through planned obsolescence, but how does that look in its execution? There are several types of planned obsolescence:

Perceived obsolescence relies on ever-changing trends to make a product appear obsolete. Designers create newer versions of products so that consumers will be motivated to buy the latest style.

Contrived durability is when designers create a product with a shortened lifespan so that consumers need to replace the product more frequently.

Prevention of repairs refers to products that are unable to be repaired. By preventing the repair of products, consumers are forced to buy a new product to replace the old one, no matter how small the fix might be.

Software updates can also render devices obsolete. Most commonly used with consumer electronics, newer software updates can be incompatible with your older device, and through a trickle-down effect, your device could become so slow and dysfunctional that you’re forced to get a new one.

What are some common examples of planned obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence began almost a century ago with the great light bulb scandal. Since that time, society has grown aware of planned obsolescence, and businesses have learned to balance technological progress with the phasing of outdated products. However, whether by voluntary or involuntary design, planned obsolescence still exists. Here are a few examples of planned obsolescence:

Light bulbs: In the early 20th century, the Phoebus cartel and light bulb manufacturers intentionally designed bulbs to stop working after a set amount of time. This prompted consumers to buy replacements every 3-6 months. Eventually, the United States Government had to intervene using legal means.

Printer cartridges: There’s a reason why ink cartridges are often more expensive than printers themselves. Before they run out of ink, some ink cartridges will cease use due to a preinstalled chip. This forces users to buy new ink more frequently than they need to.

iPhones: Apple’s smartphones have faced heavy scrutiny after users shared stories online of how their older model iPhones had grown considerably slower with age. This sparked a sort of social media investigation that revealed Apple’s plan to slowly make their older phones obsolete through software updates.

As you can see from the examples, planned obsolescence extends far and wide. There are plenty more examples of this strategy in its execution. Its costs, however, extend beyond the consumer’s pocket. As we face environmental crises in many sectors, adding more electronic waste to the world’s surplus of waste presents a big problem. Landfills are filling up with this waste. Additionally, sourcing and finding the raw materials used to create our consumer goods places a heavy demand on the environment.

What can we do about it?

There are a few initiatives taking place that are resisting the concept of planned obsolescence. Some of these are legislative-focused strategies such as the EU mandating that Apple and other electronic producers accept USB-C ports. But others remain grassroots movements or consumer-based actions.

Modular design: By enabling devices to be made with parts that can be repaired when individual components become faulty, it can extend the lifespan of products. Much like a car that can be fixed part by part, this would enable upgrades or simple repairs to faulty parts.

Right to repair: Currently, a lot of our devices are not designed to be repaired. In fact, many smartphones (like the iPhone) are completely encased and use special tools to open. This limits your ability to repair your device, but some are demanding this convenience become a right.

Better alternatives: Looking to make the world greener, some companies have stepped up and are doing some cool stuff to fight back against issues like planned obsolescence. While these brands may not be as well-known as companies like Apple, they do exist.

If planned obsolescence is a worrying concern for you, don’t fret. Consumers can still act and make their opinions heard. With more awareness of planned obsolescence, things can change. If you want to avoid planned obsolescence altogether, you can learn to repair your own products, avoid the need to follow every trend when it comes out, reuse what you have, and consider buying secondhand.

Alex is a contributing writer for Acer. Alex is a Texas-based writer and B2B email marketing strategist specializing in helping technology brands connect to their customers. He has lived all over Asia and has consulted with business clients in numerous industries to grow their brands.


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