Planned obsolescence

old washing machine

It’s not just a cliche that our machines used to be built to last. Photo: jumpinjimmyjava.

My washing machine stopped working this week. It just quietly threw in the towel and stopped agitating. It’s a really old machine so I assumed that it had paid its dues. It’s so old, actually, that anyone under about 35 might not even recognize it as a washer.

Anyway, I crossed my fingers and called the repairman. He came out and, within 30 minutes, had it running perfectly again. Then, he told me what a great machine it was….that “they aren’t making them like this anymore.” This one, he said, “had been built to last…and to be repairable.” His parting words were an admonition for me to hang on to the old washer because a new one wouldn’t be as sturdy, reliable or repairable.

Those words: “they aren’t making them like this anymore” stuck in my mind.

Low quality for a good cause

Planned obsolescence is a policy of planning or designing a product with a limited useful life, so it will become obsolete in a certain period of time. Planned obsolescence has benefits for the manufacturer because the consumer is under pressure to purchase again. Planned obsolescence encourages hyper-consumerism through a whole range of manufacturing and marketing techniques that all share a single aim: encouraging consumers to buy more to keep factories busy and products flying off the shelves. The easiest way to achieve this is to reduce a product’s life cycle by employing different techniques.

In 1932, Bernard London wrote an eight-page paper entitled “Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence.” London’s plan entailed stimulating economic growth through controlled obsolescence. He wrote: “New products would constantly be pouring forth from the factories and marketplaces, to take the place of the obsolete, and the wheels of industry would be kept going and employment regularized and assured for the masses.”

Back in the day, most Americans rented phones from the phone company. These phones lasted forever. Today, many iPhone models cannot even have their battery replaced.

There are three basic types of planned obsolescence:

  1. Obsolescence of function, which refers to when an item is produced to break down or otherwise become non-functional in an abnormally short period of time
  2. Obsolescence of style, which refers to the the obsolescence of items such as clothing, fashion accessories, and home decorating products due to changes in style
  3. Technical obsolescence, which refers to the obsolescence of an older item caused by the creation of a newer item performing the same function, e.g. a new model of digital camera that takes higher quality photos

A society built to be repairable

It is interesting to consider the potential socio-cultural impact, as well as implications for the future, if alternatives to planned obsolescence were taken seriously.

Every year we fill enough garbage trucks to form a line that would stretch from the earth, halfway to the moon. Many of the items on these trucks are appliances, toys, clothing and technological gadgets that are, though not that old, already “obsolete.”

And, this is completely be design, as it is possible to make products that last for a long time. Before Germany was reunified, for example, a law was imposed that every refrigerator had to be made so it could work for at least 25 years.

And, they did.

— Sherry L. Ackerman, Transition Voice

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  1. Roger says

    This article resonates with me. It is however, complicated! As I read this on my iPad 2.0 which has already been replaced by the New iPad, I can’t hlep but to reflect on the convenience of using this type of technology, not to mention that I can actually have access to “transition Voice” at all! Yes, unfortunately, we live in a throw away world with a throw away mentality. This mind set has to change. “What is the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?” Henry David Thoreau.

    • says

      Great Thoreau quote. I feel the same ambivalence as I type away on a cheap old PC laptop with a quarter of the keys rubbed off and wonder if I can justify replacing it next time with a Mac. With computers I guess it’s hard to stick with the old. I have drawn the line on phones, and won’t get a smart one. Meanwhile, I’m starting to learn the joy of hand tools. I just retired my “cordless” plastic power drill for a truly cordless old-timey egg beater hand drill. The latter, with its sturdy wooden handle and gorgeous metal gears, is a thing of beauty.

  2. Remco says

    Thanks for your article. I love keeping stuff working, weather it’s my ’83 BMW or my ’02 laptop. But it’s often the discrepancy between replacement costs and repair and spare parts costs that make replacement viable. I’m trying to teach my kids to fix what is fixable (most things purely mechanical) and not get excited about gadgets that won’t last. My favorite things require no batteries and have few working parts. My axe will never become obsolete and neither will my shaving blade. Let’s purchase quality and enjoy it for a long time.

  3. Carlota B says

    Hi, I’m a Bachillerato student at Barcelona and I would like to ask you for your email adress or something, to ask you some questions about planned obsolescence as I’m doing a project about it and I find that would you’ve written is very interesting!
    It would be a pleasure for me!

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