Planned obsolescence is a purposefully implemented strategy that ensures the current version of a given product will become out-of-date or useless within a known time period. This practice is implemented across many industries, and benefits businesses by encouraging consumers to purchase new products and services to replace old ones. There are a variety of techniques used to artificially shorten a product's lifespan, such as contrived durability, high repair costs relative to the cost of buying a replacement, and aesthetic upgrades that make newer products more desirable than older ones. Planned obsolescence tends to work best in markets with few competitors.
Henry Ford rolled out production of the Model T in the United States in 1908. It was popular, dependable, and looked great in black, as it was the only color offered. The vehicle saturated the market. The Model T was built to last, with no need for consumers to buy an another car. As stated in Henry Ford's autobiography, My Life and Work, "I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise, but it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one".
The CEO of General Motors (GM) in the mid-1920s, Alfred P. Sloan, witnessed Ford's inertia, which gave him the idea of releasing new models, new colors, and faster engines every year, subsequently fabricating demand. Sloan states in his autobiography, My Years With General Motors, "The changes in the new model should be so novel and attractive as to create demand...and a certain amount of dissatisfaction with past models as compared with the new one". This can be witnessed in advertisements released between 1925 and 1927 from Chevrolet, a sector of GM. In each of the advertisements, the vehicle has the same relative appearance with no major changes, but in different colors. Each advertisement appeals to a wise customer base using words and images. Words and phrases such as "Quality at Low Cost" [image 1] were featured in many 1925 Chevrolet advertisements. Advertisements from 1926 and 1927 continued its slogan of "Quality at Low Cost", while depicting women and pushing Chevrolets as a family car.
Planned Obsolescence was conceived during the Great Depression, when automobile sales collapsed between 1930 and 1932. Sales rebounded slowly. GM recovered quickly though as they exceeded their late 1920s sales level by the end of the 1930s.
The term "Planned Obsolescence" was first coined by Bernard London, a Russian-American real estate broker, in his 1932 pamphlet "Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence". London suggested that the federal government print expiration dates on durable goods, such as furniture and clothing, to urge purchasing. Once the expiration date on these goods passed, they should be replaced with new goods. London proposed that it be the duty of the State to oversee that this system run smoothly.
World War II (WWII) began in 1939, which marked the end of the Great Depression. Ford and GM's sales increased due to WWII, but GM gained market share with their new strategy whereas Ford, who chose to not pursue GM's strategy, was saved from bankruptcy due to the War.
Post WWII, a growing middle class began to define itself by the ability to buy the newest products and upgrade them frequently. With the end of WWII, other automobile industries viewed the GM's strategy of planning new products around obsolete ones as a implementable business model.
Brooks Stevens, a prominent Milwaukee industrial designer, specialized in various industries such as automobiles and appliances. Stevens saw that the concept of products becoming obsolete would generate a greater revenue. At a 1954 advertising conference, Stevens gave a speech highlighting the meaning and value of planned obsolescence, where he stated, "Instill in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better a little sooner than is necessary". This speech began the popularization of the phrase as he began implementing planned obsolescence in his career.
One implication of short-lived possessions is the production of excessive environmental waste. Rapid consumption of goods leads to excessive build-up of wastes, compared to the use of long-lasting goods. Studies have suggested over 100 million cell phones and 300 million computers are disposed of every year, while only 20,000 televisions are refurbished every year and 20 million are sold. These statistics show short-lived products lead to massive amounts of trash, which directly affects the health of the environment. Although recycling of electronics is an alternative to disposal, approximately 50 to 80% of these products are sent to third world countries where workers are exposed to toxic products while extracting recyclable materials. Even though recycling of electronics bypasses environmental wastes, it present a health burden for the communities involved in the recycling process.
The legality of planned obsolescence has been debated in several countries. While the European Union (EU) has yet to take definitive action outlawing planned obsolescence, the recently formed European Economic and Social Committee, an EU institution, is contending for a total ban on defects designed to artificially limit a product's life and requiring producer guarantees on minimum product lifespans. In 2014, France became the first country to pass laws regarding planned obsolescence, with the "Hamon Law" which outlaws "the use of techniques whereby the person responsible for placing a product on the market deliberately aims to reduce its lifetime in order to increase the replacement rate". France has further outlawed planned obsolescence by requiring that appliance manufacturers tell consumers how long a product is intended to last and how long replacement parts for a product will be available, in addition to providing an effective two year warranty on many products. In 2015, a draft revision attempting to outlaw producers from "installing into a product a component that would lead to or cause a shortening of the lifespan" was brought before the Slovakian Parliament, but was withdrawn by Otto Brixi, a member of the ruling Smer Party, who stated "Slovakia is not prepared yet for such a modern law... but we want to return to it in the future".
A psychological implication of planned obsolescence is a feeling of superiority or power when buying a new product. This effect, called conspicuous consumption, is described by Horace Dediu, an Apple analyst, in the following quote: "Without an aspirational product, it assumes there's no value in a phone beyond its utility. But some people want to buy expensive things to feel good about themselves, because they want to give expensive gifts or feel powerful or influential". Sundeep Teki, a neuroscientist at the University of Oxford, describes the biological effects of buying new possessions: "a neuroimaging study revealed that Apple products activate the same parts of the brain in its fans as religious images trigger in a person of faith". These quotes describes a sense of prestige and social power that come with buying the newest, most expensive products on the market and the close connection consumers have developed with possessions.
The light bulb manufacturing industry uses planned obsolescence as a business strategy by producing bulbs with short life spans to get consumers to buy more product. Technology for long-lasting bulbs has been developed. A light bulb in a California fire station, called the Centennial Light, has been in use almost continuously since 1901. This light bulb surpassed one million service hours and was added to the 2015 Guinness World Records as the longest-lasting bulb in the world. The light bulb was manufactured by Shelby Electric, using a design by Adolphe Chaillet, a French-American inventor. This example illustrates technology for long-lasting light bulbs has been discovered, but it is not used in modern light bulb manufacturing, since the average lifespan of an incandescent bulb is commonly one thousand hours. This lifespan is approximately half as long as the average light bulb manufactured in the early 1920s. The shorter lifespans of modern incandescent bulbs is reported to date to 1924, when leaders of the largest light bulb manufacturing companies met in Switzerland to form a cartel to limit the lifespan of light bulbs. During this time, the average lifespan of light bulbs increased to the point that companies were experiencing a decrease in profit and their solution was to limit the lifespan of the product as an industry.
Though more automobile manufacturers were implementing planned obsolescence post WWII, opposition still existed with companies such as Ford and Volkswagen (VW). In the 1960s, a VW campaign mocked the strategy that other vehicle manufacturers were adopting, touting their Beetle's unchanging design. Luxury vehicle manufacturers, such as Rolls-Royce, chose and continue to choose to not implement a planned obsolescence strategy because they rely on "propagating the idea that their vehicles may one day be worth more than the price that was first paid for them", similar to antiques. They rely on exclusivity rather than mass production to maximize revenue.
Today, vehicle manufacturers, such as Toyota and Honda, continue to employ planned obsolescence. In 2017, commercial automobile manufacturers, such as Ford, Volkswagen and Audi, in the United Kingdom (UK) began implementing a vehicle scrappage scheme in an effort to decrease carbon emissions, improve fuel economy, and safely manage scrappage of old vehicles. Ford UK switched to a planned obsolescence business model, utilizing a "New For Old" scrappage scheme, where drivers of any car registered prior to December 2009 are eligible to upgrade to a discounted newer model if they trade in their old vehicle.
Mobile tech companies, particularly Apple, use planned obsolescence to drive sales of their devices each year without making significant changes between models. Functionally, iPhones are designed to become obsolete quickly; Apple themselves have stated they expect the life-cycle of their mobile phones to be about 3 years. This artificially shortened life-cycle is achieved through techniques such as software updates that slow down older models without adding many features, and non-removable batteries with replacement costs close to the price of buying a new phone. Additionally, Apple chooses to emphasize sleek, stylistic design over durability, making their devices more prone to accidental damages than their competitors' devices: the 2017 iPhone X has been called the "most breakable, highest-priced, most expensive to repair iPhone ever" by SquareTrade, a company that provides extended warranties for electronic devices. Apple also plans obsolescence into the accessories that accompany their devices; by constantly updating the charging port on the newer models of their phones, they render older accessories obsolete, forcing users to either purchase adapters or the newer models of chargers, headphones, etc., which can only be bought from Apple themselves for the most part. Though every tech company releases new models of their devices annually, Apple users are more likely to upgrade to a newer model as soon as their service provider allows them to when compared to Android and other users. Apple devices have particularly high repair costs, break more often than their competitors, and provide updates that older models cannot handle; as a result, Apple is exceptionally effective at encouraging users to upgrade their devices frequently.
Planned obsolescence represents a business strategy used to balance economics and technological innovation to maximize the profit of companies. Indirect effects of planned obsolescence include the psychological effects of consumerism, where people don't buy products solely for their utility, but also for the feeling of social power that possessions bring. Other effects include continuous waste production caused by short-lived possessions and the development of legislation to counteract the effects of planned obsolescence. Further work is needed to extend the examination of planned obsolescence beyond the scope of the United States and elaborate on the use of advertisement to promote planned obsolescence in different industries.
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