Last Updated: January 2021
Before I talk about planned obsolescence, I should have a quick word about what it is. You have either come here because you want to know more about it or because you spotted the title and wondered what the heck it means.
Obsolescence comes from obsolete. When something is obsolete, it is no longer relevant, no longer used; it is out of date. The most common way for a product to become obsolete is for it to be replaced by something new, and this is where planned obsolescence comes in.
Planned obsolescence is when various strategies are used to make a product seem undesirable, useless, and unwanted. There are many ways in which a business can do this, and it is one of the building blocks for many companies to make a profit.
4 Types Of Planned Obsolescence
There are four main ways in which a company can achieve planned obsolescence:
- contrived durability,
- software updates,
- perceived obsolescence,
- and prevention of repair.
Companies can use all of the above or a combination of all four. The ultimate goal is to make you buy products again and again, and that is directly against what we value at Durability Matters.
Let’s take a closer look at how companies might use these strategies.
1. Contrived Durability
If only all companies were as interested in looking after their customers as they are with turning a profit, planned obsolescence would be obsolete.
Contrived durability is the most common way for planned obsolescence to happen and is when parts break down intentionally.
Companies make their products with parts which they know are going to fail, and in products which you know you will buy again.
How often have you been in someone’s garage or basement and seen one of those old fridges still working? New fridges (in most cases) do not last as long as the old ones, and there is a reason for that. Companies know that when your fridge dies, you will buy a new one.
There are many other examples where a product will break down, and a consumer will buy a replacement, often a slightly newer model. Unreliable parts are almost always to blame.
2. Software Updates
Your printer does not work, and you have tried to update your drivers to get it to do something. Still, it will not print. You search, and you search, and you find that your printer is no longer compatible with your updated operating system. There is nothing to do but buy a new printer. Software updates can drive consumers to throw out an old product and buy a new one (printers also fall to unreliable parts).
Think about your smartphone. It works fine; you can call, text, use a bunch of apps, but after numerous updates, you find that your smartphone can’t handle it all anymore. You may also find that the most recent software updates are no longer compatible with your phone. There is nothing for it other than to buy a new phone.
Many otherwise good products fall victim to software updates, and companies know exactly what they are doing with this.
3. Perceived Obsolescence
One of the most common forms of planned obsolescence is clever marketing. There does not even need to be anything wrong with your product for you to want to replace it. This happens a lot with smartphones. It is no wonder that an updated model comes out every year.
You also have to contend with phones which have bigger screens, are more powerful, have a longer battery life, are waterproof, can do more, have cooler cases, can take more video, have voice control, and are packed with AI. Sure, your phone can do everything which you need it to do, but can it do what everyone else’s phone can do? The marketing gurus will tell you otherwise.
The fear of missing out is strong, and companies know it. Before you buy a new product, ask yourself if you really need it.
4. Prevention of Repair
If you own an Apple smart device, then you know how hard it can be to repair or replace a part. While this is done for security (Apple does not want inferior parts to void warranties or damage devices), it also falls under prevention of repair.
Even if you want to replace a battery in an Apple device, you may find yourself needing special tools just to unscrew screws, making it hard for users to replace parts, and it can be even more difficult to repair devices. When it does come to finding a professional to repair the device for you, it can often be more cost-effective to replace the product entirely.
To make phones thinner, you may not even be able to access a battery to replace it. While this can improve the performance and look of a phone, you will eventually find your device stuck with an aging battery that cannot handle a fully-functioning phone.
Lowered battery performance and prevention of repair often go hand in hand, and, because obtaining a new battery is rarely a choice, replacing an entire device is often the solution.
Prevention of repair is definitely something to think about when purchasing any product.
7 Examples Of Planned Obsolescence
You know what planned obsolescence is, but it is always easier to put an idea in context by giving some examples. Here are 7 products that often fall victim to planned obsolescence.
1. Slowed Down iPhones
One of the most famous instances of planned obsolesce comes from one of the biggest companies in the world, Apple.
In 2018, French prosecutors went after the company. Under French law, it is a crime to intentionally shorten the lifespan of a product. As a result, Apple had to pay a $27-million fine – an amount that they make in around 3 hours.
Apple admitted that older iPhone models were slowed down through software updates, though they claimed that this was because of diminishing battery performance rather than the software. Many iPhone users shared details of their phones being too slow to use.
Apple slashed the prices of its replacement batteries so that the phones would speed up with the new software, and pledged to do more in the future to ensure that the phones did not slow again.
With a new iPhone coming out every year, I am sure there is some planned obsolescence in there somewhere.
2. Protected Ink Cartridges
Printers often go on sale, and you can get a fantastic deal, but how good is that deal?
Did you know that a replacement ink cartridge can cost more than the printer itself? There are even some ink cartridges with smart chips that will disable the ink cartridge when the ink-levels are low. This means that you may not get to use all of the ink that you have paid for. There may be enough ink to print, but the cartridge will not let you in an effort to maintain quality control.
You can also find that some cartridges cannot be refilled, and others can only be refilled with certain ink, or by certain retailers. With so much going into manufacturing each ink cartridge, and so much waste, these products are not only expensive, they are awful for the environment too.
3. Marginally Modified Textbooks
You may imagine that planned obsolescence only applies to technology, but that is not the case. If you have ever been in school, you know how much textbooks can cost. There are many courses where the required reading is a textbook that is highly specialized and costly.
It would be easy to complete the course and resell your textbook, but that would cut down on profits for authors and publishers. To stop this, textbooks are often reprinted with small changes, often skewing the page numbers when compared to the previous issue. This means that students are forced to buy these new copies instead of purchasing second-hand copies.
New editions make previous versions of a textbook obsolete, and it forces students to hand over their cash.
4. Fast Fashion, Low-Quality Clothes
Fashion trends change so quickly that we need fast fashion to keep up, right?
Unfortunately, fast fashion brands are not leaders when it comes to changing styles, they are followers. They keep track of popular clothing choices and bring to market those fashions while they are still in style. That means they could be flooding the market with these clothes a couple of weeks after a fashion begins trending.
The problem with this is that to bring these clothes quickly to market, there have to be sacrifices. The clothes may be affordable, but they are almost certainly low-quality and have a detrimental effect on the people who are making them and the environment.
We recommend buying fashionable clothing if you want to, but it is always a better investment to pay a little more for the fashion-forward brands that are setting the styles and using high-quality materials and production methods.
Vintage clothing holds up well too, and thrift stores can bring you quality at low prices.
5. Yearly Updates On Cars
There are many ways that automakers use planned obsolescence, and it is no coincidence that they bring out a new model almost every year.
The older your model of car, the less likely you are to find the parts needed to repair it, and this is often down to the manufacturer discontinuing the part.
- How Many Miles Does A Car Last And Which Models Are The Most Reliable?
- How Long Do Car Batteries Last & How To Extend Their Life?
Many newer models (the ones that come in the yearly-cycles) give you not much more than cosmetic updates. They often change parts year on year, even if those parts work great, for that would mean more available parts for older models, and they would not be able to tempt you with the newer models.
There is also the idea that cars are fashion accessories, and people will buy a newer model, not because it is better, but because it can make them look better. Thank you, marketing team!
There are many types of planned obsolescence used by car manufacturers, and each new model uses a lot of our resources for not much more functionality.
Used cars are not seen as fashionable or cool, but they do reduce the use of resources. Cars lose a lot of their value as soon as they leave the lot, so why would you want to pour your cash down the drain with a new car when you can buy a perfectly good used car?
6. Unrepairable Consumer Electronics
We’ve talked about electronics that are hard to repair, and especially inaccessible batteries. When you look at doing it yourself, it is next to impossible with some devices, and manufacturers have a second trick up their sleeves.
When you go to have a device repaired, or a part replaced (more specifically, the battery), the repair or replacement is often priced a little lower than a new unit, making it hard not to throw the device away and upgrade to a new one.
Many batteries have a set life-cycle, helping to prevent fires when the battery wears down. The combination of all these points means that you will eventually have to replace your battery, and, when you do, it might be easier to just upgrade.
7. Short Lasting Light Bulbs
We are slowly moving towards LED bulbs and into the realm of long-lasting bulbs but, did you know that old bulbs were originally long-lasting?
They are not anymore, and why is that? Money.
Thomas Edison’s original light bulbs still illuminate a hundred years after they were made, but that is not profitable for modern-day manufacturers. By creating bulbs with a short lifespan, you have to keep coming back for more.
Longer-lasting bulbs may cost you a little more, but they will save you money in the long run. Invest in durable solutions, especially those from reputable manufacturers, and turn off your lights when you are not using them.
Pay a little more, use them when you need them, and your bulbs will last for a long time.
How To Combat Planned Obsolesce?
You know about the four types of planned obsolescence, and, using that knowledge, you can watch out for the products that are going to fall victim. You can also take these additional measures:
- Look for extended warranties that cover products should they fail.
- Buy products that have lots of spare parts readily available.
- Buy from retailers that safely recycle electronics and eliminate dangerous substances.
- Support the durable brands that build products that last.
You can also vote with your purchasing power. By buying durable second-hand products, your hard-earned cash does not go to manufacturers that use planned obsolescence, and you can save yourself some money.
In July 2017, the European Parliament passed the “Resolution on a longer lifetime for products: benefits for consumers and companies.” This marked a step forward in the battle again planned obsolescence.
The resolution provides financial incentives for companies that make durable, high-quality products that are straightforward to repair. On the user end, customers who bought electronic devices are permitted to repair their devices with any service provider, instead of jumping through the hoops of the manufacturer’s official repair service.
Several organizations are advocating against planned obsolescence and are good to keep an eye on in the future to see which companies they endorse. The Spanish FENISS (Foundation for Energy and Sustainable Innovation Without Planned Obsolescence) awards a mark to companies with environmentally sustainable supply chains and business practices, which create products without planned obsolescence. Companies that have been awarded this mark include Casio and Scanfisk Seafood.
To try and undo the harm created by planned obsolescence, Amigos de la Tierra, a Spanish NGO, launched “Alargascencia.” Roughly translating to “Lengthening,” Alargascencia is a network of meeting points to swap unneeded objects with other consumers, to help squeeze every second out of a product’s lifespan rather than throwing it away. Some of these locations include repair services to help you get more from your products instead of replacing them.
The battle against planned obsolescence is really an environmental one, so it might not come as a surprise to hear that Greenpeace has its own campaign against planned obsolescence. The campaign raises awareness of planned obsolescence in electronics and pushes for better repair services. Every mobile device repaired is one less thrown away and left to damage the environment.
Wrapping It Up
Before you buy a product, think about two things: do you need it? And, is it going to last? Just because you are purchasing an expensive product, it does not mean that you are getting one that is going to last. Just look at the iPhone.
Companies are in business to make money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But some companies use planned obsolescence to make their money while others turn a profit while looking after their customers. When buying a product, take the time to investigate the company and what they offer. Companies that provide lifetime warranties (or some sort of extended warranty) are usually ones that have belief in their products.
Look for future-proof products that are not going to be affected by software updates, and check if the product is one in a long line of slightly updated ones.
There are some great companies and durable products out there; you just need to do a little research to find the honest ones. And we’re here to help you do that.