What to do on planned obsolescence?

The discussion on lifecycle analysis (LCA) in the last lecture reminded me of the problem of planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence is a technique used by companies to reduce the durability of their products in order to sell more. Popular methods include the use of plastic instead of metal for non-essential parts of a device to make it break more quickly, although this is not technically required and does not lower costs significantly. I have made this unfortunate experience myself: a short time ago, a small part of my electric Braun razor broke, which has, although the razor’s main functions still work, made shaving a much less pleasant experience. A salesman told me later that about one in three razors of this type show this defect shortly after the expiration of the 2-year warranty. Another trick, which seems to be especially popular at Apple, makes devices harder to repair or by integrating short-lived components (e.g. the battery of an iPod) firmly into the device without the possibility to replace only this component.

This practice obviously has direct negative consequences for our society’s resource use, but it also fosters a junk-mentality among consumers, as repairs are very often as costly or even more expensive than buying a new device. Other consumers are in turn angered and feel cheated if they discover a predetermined breaking point. In Germany, one particularly infuriated citizen decided to launch a protest website called http://www.murks-nein-danke.de (unfortunately only in German, Murks is a term used to describe really bad quality), where he gathers evidence for planned obsolescence. According to his “Murksbarometer”, especially Samsung, Apple, Philips and several manufacturers of printing equipment generate a lot of discontent among their customers in this way.

Unfortunately, it seems that once more it is in the responsibility of the consumer to find out about and avoid such products to discourage this behaviour in the future. Yet, the topic does not seem to generate a lot of attention: to date, the site still hasn’t reached 10’000 likes on Facebook and apart from a “Murks-Museum” being opened in Berlin, there is no evidence of any political pressure generated by the initiative. Of course, it is always the easiest way to call for new regulations in order to solve some problem instead of looking for a more innovative solution. But what apart from political pressure economic pressure from customers could spur some rethinking in the design departments?

The only development I dare to hope for is the growing sense of corporate responsibility. In the wake of the sustainability mega trend, many a big player has analysed and redesigned its products’ life cycles (e.g. Unilever). Experience has taught us, however, that voluntary measures are usually not enough to drive change reasonably fast without considerable market pressure. Consequently, I have to continue hoping for some consumer-protecting legislation to be enacted while I try to still use my broken razor for as long as possible.

And now I have to rush out to see the northern lights! See you tomorrow!

 

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2 comments
  1. angelinakt said:

    Great that after the lecture on life cycle of products there appeared a few entries about planned obsolescence, indeed this is the link that comes to mind immediately when thinking about the life cycle of many current goods. Initially, planned obsolescence was introduced as one possible tool to fight the Great Depression in the US. Bernard London was the one who began urging governments in the USA to promote the reduction in products’ life by law in 1932. It seems that at the time his arguments were quite convincing!

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/27/London_%281932%29_Ending_the_depression_through_planned_obsolescence.pdf

    What it may mean for today is that ending planned obsolescence will probably require quite a strong governmental push for companies to stop using this old trick.

  2. Hello Linus,
    Thank you for your blog post. Taking this course together with other sustainability minded people is seriously challenging some issues we covered in my under-graduate degree. Surprising or not, the term of planned obsolescence was never discussed in my marketing classes then and this thought is completely new to me. Of course you hear people joking about the warranty ending just before the product breaks, but that a company would take such an approach as a strategic decision is new to me.

    The Finnish law says that if a product breaks down within six months after the purchase, the product was broken already when sold and it is the seller’s responsibility to prove different. The law, however, does not include designing products that have a poor battery to make the consumer buy a new product after a few years. The challenge of legislation for durable products is how to define a durable product because the variety of products is so huge and there are products for so many different purposes.

    Trying to make products that last as short as possible is unsustainable but also very unethical. I agree with you, that the solution should and hopefully also will come from within the companies – they have to change their strategy and really act according to their strategy. It is environmentally unsustainable and also irresponsible marketing to say that they have the best product if it could actually produce better ones. On a larger scale it is creating a lifestyle of buying new products instead of repairing them and thus adding more waste to the landfills. In addition to that, who wants to work for a company which does planned obsolescence?

    I have noticed that there are papers hanging on the wall in shoe stores papers telling customers that repairing the heel because it breaks in everyday use is not part of the warranty. In the sad case, when you buy cheap shoes, you have to bring the shoes to the shoemaker already after two nights out. Why does anyone make such shoes and why does a store want to sell them? The consumer is happy to find cheap shoes. If the shoes break after two weeks they either end up in the trash bin or the consumer has to pay for repairing them – money that could’ve been invested in the shoes right away – then he or she is not very happy anymore. The more I think about this, the less it makes sense to me – so why do companies do this again?

    Marleen

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