President's Blog

8 Jul 2019 15:30 Age: 236 days

Guest Blog | Let’s talk about Planned Obsolescence

Category: ISWA BLOG


This guest blog was written by Kamila Pope, author of the book “Understanding Planned Obsolescence: unsustainability through production, consumption and waste generation”

What is planned obsolescence? Although this is an increasingly popular expression, most of us still have not heard about it. Besides, it is clear there is a general misunderstanding or a limited knowledge of the whole spectrum of planned obsolescence even among those who are aware of such practice. If you know about it or not, the fact is all of us are submitted to planned obsolescence, have or will experience it wherever we want or not.

It is in this context the book “Understanding Planned Obsolescence” becomes relevant. On a very complex and challenging subject, the book works to develop a clearer conception of what is planned obsolescence, its different types, subtypes, names, and examples. It looks at the causes, cost, and impact of this practice, considering that, to really understand planned obsolescence, it is essential to explore its origins, the context where it emerged and why it is still the dominant foundation of current production and consumption patterns. 


Planned obsolescence can be defined as the artificial reduction of the life span of consumer goods, inducing us, consumers, to buy new products before we would need to and, therefore, more often than we usually would. However, there are different ways for a product to become deliberately obsolete: through its quality; its functionality and/or its appearance.

Made to break

Think about your parents’ or grandparents’ electronics. They used to last. The new, modern and good-looking models, on the contrary, break down increasingly faster. Besides, their owners frequently don't fix the broken items since most of the times it is more expensive to repair them than buy a new one. This is “planned obsolescence of quality”, also known as built-in, technical, intentional physical or programmed obsolescence. Producers deliberately determine the lifetime of their products, developing techniques or using materials of inferior quality, anticipating breakage or wear, ultimately reducing their durability.


Old is out

“Planned obsolescence of desirability”, also known as psychological, stylistic or perceived obsolescence, makes a product obsolete when it is still fully functional due to its appearance and design. This is a common strategy of the fashion industry but is also widely used by companies in the automotive and electronic sectors, among others, making their “old” products quickly outdated and less desirable with the launch of new models or collections.


Such strategy is presented not as an imposition from producers to make consumers buy new products, but more subtly as a “freedom of choice”. Replacing an old but useful product with a newer model is not imposed on consumers by those who produce, it is the choice of those who consume.


Although this reasoning is not wrong, it is important to note this freedom is limited to choosing between the possibilities offered by the market. The non-choice or the choice of alternative options to those put forward by the market can be cause for social exclusion, even if this exclusion is implicit or masked. Marketing campaigns and design strategies have key roles in the implementation of this type of planned obsolescence. Using different tools, such as neuroscience, they convince consumers of the need for new products.

Isn’t innovation always good?

The third type, “planned obsolescence of function”, happens when a product becomes obsolete with the launch of another product, or of the same product with improvements, able to perform the same function as the old one but in a more efficient manner. A classic example of this was the replacement of the typewriter by the computer.


This is a beneficial type of obsolescence since technological innovation is a natural process of humanity. Viewed environmentally, however, the benefits are not conclusive. Even when the materials, energy and production process of the new product are “greener”, replacing products nearly always involves the exploitation of more natural resources and the disposal of more waste.


Withholding improvements


Questioning innovation becomes even more sensible when we look at two specific subtypes of “planned obsolescence of function", currently widely practiced. The first one, “postponed obsolescence”, occurs when a producer introduces technological improvements once consumer demand for that product decreases, or after a certain period. This subtype is based on the idea of launching a product with below-par technology and later making it obsolete by introducing “improvements”.


This definition can sound a bit complicated, but it is actually simple. Take this example: A company producing digital cameras already owns a face recognition technology. Nevertheless, the company releases its latest camera without such technology, holding it back to be introduced next year. Consumers buy the camera thinking they have the highest technology, but what they don’t know is that their camera is already obsolete! “Postponed planned obsolescence” has been used in many different industries but is something commonly used in the electronics sector. Think about mobile phones and tablets: every 6 – 12 months a “new” model is launched in the market, making the previous model instantly obsolete.


Tricky updates


The other very controversial subtype of “planned obsolescence of function” is “systemic planned obsolescence”. This subtype is typical of the IT sector and happens with the replacement or updating of a system by modifying and introducing new functions to make its continued use difficult, if not impossible.


Software updates are a prime example of this practice. In many cases, such changes render both the previous software and the hardware obsolete. The product becomes obsolete due to, among others, incompatibilities, file/data reading disability, and exhaustion of memory. All these malfunctions make the product’s use redundant, forcing the replacement of the hardware or worse, the device as a whole.


Planned obsolescence of quality, of function and of desirability may occur together or separately, and, currently, there are legislation, legal cases, political actions, and social movements all addressing the different types of planned obsolescence. In this sense, the European Union and some of its members are showing significant progress in raising awareness on the unsustainability of such practice. 


Unsustainable practices of an unsustainable economy


The strategy has been going on for years. As the global economy is grounded in growth, the existence and practice of planned obsolescence, which is designed to keep production and consumption of goods constantly rising, makes sense.


However, it is essential to understand our economic model is based on the idea that it is possible to have unlimited growth. Since the 1970s, Ecological Economics has been proving this to be biophysically impossible. Still, this is the predominant model worldwide.


Although the existence of planned obsolescence makes sense in our current economic model, in real terms, this model is completely unsustainable.


A new economy, new business, new practices


A new economic paradigm is required. Although we do not yet know what it is, some legal and political measures are being adopted around the world to achieve a more sustainable and just model. Circular economy shows great potential as a model designed to extract less natural resources and generate less waste.


New business models are being created for the implementation of new production and consumption patterns. The sharing economy is a good example. It is gathering more supporters (investors and customers), especially in service-based businesses. But product-based companies are following a similar path. The values of these businesses are in transformation, and they are better understanding their socio-environmental responsibilities.


If businesses and indeed whole industries are to survive, they need to update and change their models. Otherwise, they risk becoming obsolete themselves. More conscious consumers and more sustainable public policies will push this agenda and those ignoring it will be left behind.


The book "Understanding Planned Obsolescence" exploring all these elements, considers the legal and economic frameworks to overcome this practice and to mitigate its effects. It unearths new patterns of production and consumption highlighting more sustainable development models. In addition, the book includes a range of legal case studies and political actions from Europe, the USA, and South America, demonstrating the subject is becoming increasingly relevant for a more sustainable future.



>>> Buy the book

About Kamila Pope