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Environmental Impacts of Planned Obsolescence

Is planned obsolescence real? What can we do about it?

A common joke about Apple’s iPhones is their tendency to break or decline in productivity (suspiciously) around the same time that a new version is released. While I’m not sure there are teams of people carefully plotting the exact minute their appliances and devices will fail, companies are definitely not making them as sturdy as possible. Is planned obsolescence, the idea that manufacturers are purposely creating products that need replacement more often than necessary, really true? If it is, can we do anything about it?

The concept of planned obsolescence started in the 1920s and 30s. In 1925, the “Phoebus Cartel,” a group of lightbulb manufacturers from America and Europe, worked together to standardize a new lightbulb with a lifespan of 1,000 hours, which was much less than the 2,500 hours advertised by other companies at the time. This was the first instance of large-scale planned obsolescence. In 1929, General Motors executives started creating “new and improved” models of their cars each year to encourage shoppers to continue buying their products. In some cases, the lifetime of cars and other appliances has actually increased, but their fashionable lifetime has decreased.

Planned obsolescence is expressed in many different ways, and not just by a single product or company. Apple recently settled a class-action lawsuit dubbed “Batterygate” against software updates that slowed down older iPhone models. Many companies update the design of their products frequently, making it difficult to find replacement parts and encouraging consumer dissatisfaction with older models. Other companies use lower quality materials so products break more quickly. Often, the cost of replacing products is so close to the cost of repair that many consumers choose to throw out the old for the new.

Planned obsolescence has some benefits. Increased competition between companies results in more efficient products, like more lightweight and compact computers and smartphones. In some ways, like children’s clothing, planned obsolescence is a good thing. Children grow out of their clothes so quickly that they don’t need to be durable. However, we are ditching our old products without any regard for sustainability. Electronics devices and appliances are some of the most relevant instances of planned obsolescence. Electronic waste, or e-waste, is produced as a result of these forces. The United States is ranked second globally for generating the most electronic waste per year, much of which is exported to developing countries and often contains lead and mercury. Many products containing valuable materials, like gold are simply reburied instead of being reused which means these materials must be mined, causing more environmental damage. Furthermore, the workers who break down e-waste often use dangerous methods and chemicals to process already toxic chemicals, damaging the health of the community and environment.

The careless dumping of products that have become “unfashionable” or only need to be repaired is not sustainable. A few researchers and companies are supporting a “circular economy,” where products are made of refurbished or recycled materials. For example, the medals for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are constructed out of recycled e-waste. Tesla uses over-the-air software updates that are constantly improving the cars’ performance without having the customer buy a new model.

Many people promote the circular economy as a way of becoming more sustainable and limiting the effects of climate change. Image Source: sustainabilityguide.eu

By offering products with a longer lifespan and selling refurbished versions of their products, companies may actually earn the favor of sustainable and frugal shoppers, especially as many people are facing financial difficulties due to the pandemic. But these companies are exceptions, and planned obsolescence is still very prevalent. So, what can we do?

Research: Make sure the products you purchase are higher quality. They tend not to wear out as quickly, will cost less long-term, and can be resold when you’re done with them.

When new models come out, compare them to the old versions to determine whether the newer is truly better. Additionally, try to find products that can be repaired easily.

Reuse: Buy second hand or refurbished products, and try to donate or sell your old products instead of throwing them away.

Recycle: Find e-waste recycling programs. Home Depot, Best Buy, and Terracycle offer recycling or trade-in programs for appliances and batteries.

Photography by Sahil Sethi, Lucy Grossmann, and others
©2020 by SEEC