"Planned Obsolescence": An Insidious Conspiracy of Manufacturers?

Any old man will tell you: the goods in the stores have long been "not the same". A clear proof of this seems to be the "Centennial Lamp" - an incandescent light bulb that has been burning for 115 years in one of the fire departments in Livermore, California.

This is an amazing time for such a device, and although the "Centennial Lamp" shines and is not bright, it has already become a tourist attraction. Today anyone can watch it: an image from a webcam is broadcast on the Internet, which is updated every 30 seconds.

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But how can this be? After all, many generations have changed over these hundred years, and each person in his life managed to change an uncountable number of burned out light bulbs, resigned to the fact that this is nothing more than a consumable.

If an incandescent lamp made in the 19th century could work for so long, why is the industry of the 20th and now the 21st century unable to repeat this technological achievement?

The "Centennial Lamp" is often cited as proof of a sinister business strategy known as "planned obsolescence." According to this theory, nothing prevents the production of incandescent lamps and various other products with a service life of several decades, but this is not profitable for companies, so they artificially reduce the resource of their products.

“In other words, this is a conspiracy theory of manufacturers, ” sums up Mohanbir Soni, professor of marketing at Northwestern University, USA.

However, is this theory correct? Is the rapid wear and tear of products really planned?

The answer is yes, but with some caveats. If you resist the temptation to accuse greedy corporations of robbing the naive consumer, and soberly analyze the situation from all sides, you can see that this strategy has certain advantages.

Planned obsolescence is necessary to some extent in order for the business to respond to ever-changing demand. Then it turns out that this strategy is only part of the general culture of consumerism, to the creation of which the manufacturers undoubtedly had a hand, but they are not alone in this situation to blame.

"Businesses just react to consumer tastes, " says Judith Chevalier, professor of finance and economics at Yale University. "In some areas, companies successfully manipulate society, but in some ways people are to blame."

A striking example

The notorious incandescent lamps are a textbook example of planned obsolescence.

A commercially available model of an electric lighting lamp was developed by Thomas Edison around 1880. In early modifications - to which the "Centennial Lamp" belongs - a carbon filament is exposed to heat, and not a thin tungsten coil, which began to be massively installed only about 30 years later.

This banal fact, according to scientists, is one of the reasons for the amazing durability of the "Hundred Years Lamp" - its thread is eight times thicker, which means much stronger than the thin metal wire of modern models.

Initially, the main users of electric lamp lighting were gamblers from the wealthy sectors of society. Companies selling lamps had to install and maintain a complete power system in every home. Seeing that buyers were reluctant to shell out for periodic replacement of burned-out fixtures, companies were keen to produce lamps that could last as long as possible, Collector's Weekly writes.

However, as electric lighting became more mainstream, it dawned on companies that it was time to change their business model. After all, it is possible to produce a product that does not last so long, and the costs of replacement can be borne by the consumer.

This is how the infamous Febus cartel was born: in the 1920s, representatives of the world's leading lighting lamp companies such as the German company Osram, Britain's Associated Electrical Industries and the American General Electric (operating through a UK subsidiary) conspired to artificially shorten the service of their lamps up to 1000 hours.

The details of this scam became known only a few decades later, when state bodies and journalists began to conduct investigations.

"This cartel is the most obvious case of planned obsolescence because documentary evidence has been found, " says Giles Slade, author of Made to Break, which traces the history of the practice and its consequences.

A similar approach can be seen in many other industries.

In the 1920s, when the auto industry was just gaining momentum, there was intense competition between General Motors and Ford. At some point, General Motors began to designate new models for years, thereby urging the consumer to fork out for the latest, and therefore the best, car - a great way to amuse your vanity and impress friends.

"This practice has become the standard for the entire industry, " states Slade.

Despite the fact that the term "planned obsolescence" became widespread only in the 1950s, the strategy itself was by that time already actively used in many countries whose economies are based on consumption.

Obsolete today

Planned obsolescence continues to exist today, in more or less veiled forms.

First, the so-called resource regulation is practiced, when some parts are made less durable, due to which they fail earlier, making the product as a whole inoperative.

Secondly, repairs can be made more expensive than buying a new product.

And some manufacturers, releasing new versions of their products, stress that the old ones are out of fashion - cunning marketers will always find a way to get into the wallet of the buyer.

The most modern example is smartphones. Often you have to get rid of the device after just a couple of years of use: the screen or buttons breaks, the battery runs out, or the model is no longer supported by the operating system, the latest applications do not start, and so on.

The solution is always at hand: a new version of the same phone, released approximately every year and advertised every time as a breakthrough, is incomparably better than anything that has come before.

Another egregious example of planned obsolescence, as Slade notes, is printer cartridges. The cartridge stops working due to a chip, optical sensor or battery long before it runs out of ink, and the owner has to buy a new cartridge, which is not cheap at all.

"It's not justified in any way, " says Slade. "I don't know why you can't just buy a bottle of color or black ink and refill the reservoir."

From this perspective, planned obsolescence is a waste of resources. Cartridge World, which accepts used cartridges and offers cheaper alternatives to official replacements, says 350 million cartridges still have ink in the trash can every year in North America alone. This is not only money down the drain, but also potential damage to the environment.


Some of these examples are outrageous, but it would be myopic to condemn planned obsolescence unequivocally. On a macroeconomic scale, fast turnover drives growth and creates jobs - just imagine how many people can be involved in the production and sale of millions of smartphone cases.

In addition, even the very need to constantly release new gadgets in order to draw more money from consumers can serve as an engine of innovation and push manufacturers to increase product quality.

One of the consequences of this vicious circle has become a reduction in the cost of many goods that are now available to almost all residents of wealthy Western countries and the eastern region, and in developed countries, the level of well-being is constantly growing.

A century ago, material comforts familiar to many of us were in the realm of science fiction. It turns out that the circle is not so vicious?

“Undoubtedly, ” admits Slade, “our consumption model has allowed us to provide a sufficiently high standard of living for a huge number of people. There has never been anything like this in the history of mankind. Unfortunately, this same model leads to global warming and pollution of the environment with toxic waste. It looks like a shameless exploitation, as the consumer benefits too. ”As Chevalier notes, companies often tailor the durability of products to the needs and expectations of those who buy them.

Example: children's clothing. "Who needs clothes for children to be made to last?" Chevalier asks a rhetorical question.

At a certain age, children can grow out of a new thing in a few months, and therefore it's okay if the clothes get dirty, torn or quickly go out of fashion. The main thing is to be inexpensive.

The same is true for consumer electronics. The relentless march of innovations and the struggle for the market lead to the fact that the technologies underlying the same smartphones are moving forward very quickly - processors are becoming faster, cameras are better, etc.

“When it comes to natural obsolescence, this is what's happening in technology, ” observes Howard Tallman, founder of several companies and CEO of a digital startup incubator called 1871. “Technology will take care of itself - in the blink of an eye, it’s obsolete. whether you like it or not. "

Therefore, many phone owners are ready for the fact that the battery life will be only three years if the price of a smartphone becomes less. “Technology is advancing so fast that many people simply don’t need a durable battery, ” explains Chevalier.

The segment of luxury goods is in stark contrast to the logic of the mass market. Here, consumers are ready to pay a substantial sum to get a product with a higher build quality, durability and value in the secondary market - yes, buyers of elite products are accustomed to the fact that their investment object increases in price over time, and does not fall apart, becoming unnecessary. trash.

“When you buy a Rolex, you have no doubt that this watch will last you a long time and that it won't do anything even if you put it under the wheels of a truck, ” says Slade.

Of course, people don't buy Rolexs because they hope to save their grandchildren from spending hours. Expensive brands flatter a person's sense of their own worth, being a material symbol of high social status.

"The consumption of luxury goods is a certain social code, " notes Slade.


However, as the cost of production becomes cheaper, certain qualities of elite products seep into the mass market, changing consumer expectations. Hardly anyone would argue that the proliferation of products such as airbags in cars is an overwhelmingly positive development.

Therefore, despite its selfish nature, ultimately the competition that underlies capitalism can, albeit less enthusiastically, help protect consumer interests.

Obsolete in the future

Despite examples to the contrary, some business analysts believe that it would be wrong to believe that the leadership of many companies literally sits and racks their brains over how to create a self-destructing product.

"In a highly competitive environment, product durability is inevitably one of the things that companies are trying to get ahead of each other, " Chevalier says.

Indeed, there are forces that can push manufacturers to extend the life of their products.

So, in the automotive market, according to Chevalier, "everyone appreciates how quickly a car loses value in comparison with others." Indeed, cars now stay on the run longer than in the past.

"In the automotive industry, for many years, fashion has been everything: today you buy a car with fins, and five years later, the fins are already the last century, " says Tallman.

However, now the situation has changed: the US Department of Transportation cites data according to which the average age of a car in the country is 11.4 years. In 1969, that figure was 5.1 years.

Nowadays, when everyone writes reviews on the Internet, it is not difficult to find out how long the product you are looking for will work - be it a car or a light bulb.

And as society realizes the perniciousness of the monstrous mass of garbage generated by the culture of disposables, consumer goods can become more durable.

For example, Google is currently developing the Ara project, a smartphone-like device consisting of six replaceable modules, thanks to which it can be upgraded many times, instead of throwing it all into the trash every time a new upgrade appears.

Sometimes a business finds a way to benefit from recycling, refurbishing and recycling products. This is a major step forward, and it is hoped that this practice will play an even more important role in the future, predicts Mohanbir Soni.

For example, the car manufacturer Tesla plans to accept used batteries from motorists and adapt them to store electricity in the house.

In addition, at night, while the car is charging, the system automatically downloads and installs new software. Sony, who also owns a Tesla vehicle, says the company has made long-term upgrades possible by specifically fitting sensors and hardware into the cars that will last long.

"Instead of selling me car after car, Tesla is just updating the software, " says Sonya. "It's kind of an antidote to obsolescence: you could say that obsolescence has been made with this model."