Planned obsolescence or built-in obsolescence is one of the strategies that industries use to create markets and rake in profits, at the cost of environment. This is a topic that gets covered only occasionally in the media.
This practice is so well entrenced in businesses, it has earned a place in Investopedia, whose definition is that ‘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obsolescence is a purposefully implemented strategy that ensures the current version of a given product will become out-of-date or useless within a known time period’ (1).
It started in 1924, when the lifespan of light bulbs were reduced from 2500 hours to 1000 to make more profits. A 2016 BBC report notes that it was in 1950s that a word was coined to name this practice that has come to stay. Planned obsolescence has come a long way, and its use is now most prevalent in the electronic industry (2).
Besides reducing the lifespan, there are other ways that industries use to make a product redundant. The most common method is to make it difficult to repair the product by replacing components. One way this is achieved is by stopping the production of spare parts after a while, as is often seen in the case of cars. So owners of functional but old cars are forced to buy new models.
Or now-a-days, product design is also to blame. Different small parts are fused together, as in a smartphone making it nearly impossible for consumers to replace parts, even the batteries. Where batteries can be replaced, their lifespan is also restricted or they are very expensive. For example, in one of their latest survey of 15 smartphones in 2017, Greenpeace found that batteries could be replaced in only two models. Once again this makes it necessary to throw the whole applicance away and replace it with a new one (3).
In many cases there are no extra benefits associated with purchase of new models for consumers. Many improved features are not completely used or necessary. However in many cases consumers have no choice. Initially it was hardware that was targetted, now software compatiblity can also be a problem in computers (4).
The amount of electronic waste or e-waste produced due to discarded electronic applicances is staggering. In ‘2014 alone, e-waste from small IT products like smartphones was estimated to be 3 million metric tons. Less than an estimated 16 percent of global e-waste is recycled’, according to Greenpeace (3).
Production of toxic waste is not the only problem created by planned obsolescence. Nearly 60 metals are used to produce smartphones, some which are rare metals, and more and more resources have to be mined for production of new items. In many cases, forests are cut down to extract the metals. So environment is degraded when excessive consumption leads to pollution through creation of e-waste and niming, and by degrading forests (5, 6).
In addition, worldwide e-waste is exported to cheap but unsafe recycling facilities in developing countries. People and children employed in these recycling units, suffer severe health problems according to World Health Organisation (7).
One of the reasons consumers have not resisted this practice is that many do not know of the extent of this problem. Another reason, is that consumers have bought the arguement sold by the industries, that changing and buying new models is necessary or something to be desired as a status symbol (4).
The use-and-throw culture that has resulted wastes resources. Ballpoint pens, computer cartridges or yearly new fashions in clothes are some other examples one comes across in daily life. To combat this trend, where possible one should make a consious choice. For instance, buy smartphones where batteries can be changed; opt for refill pens; ask for products with longer lifespans (8, 9, 10). Some more suggestions are given at the website Brandingbeat for everyday problems.
This is a problem that can be fixed without comprising the benefits of continous new convienences for consumers. At present the linear economical model is used, where materials are used for production; at the end of a product’s life, the materials are discarded as waste. However, there are circular economies, of which ‘cradle-to-cradle’ is an example, which do not ‘demonise manufacturing processes’, and yet are environemntally friendly (1).
This system relies on creating an circular economy, where products are designed and produced so that after use, the different components can be separated, and used again to make the same product or provide raw material. For every cycle of production there is no need to extract fresh resources, so the technology and production process are sustainable.
This concept is not just theory and there are many technologies that have successfully used this principle around the world in the past two decades in Europe, and Asia-Pacific countries. This approach can help to overcome problems created by continous production of new models (6, 11).
Each consumer has buying power. They can use this to create demand for sustainable products. Demand greener technologies, without sacrificing comfort and convienences.