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!