products we buy are designed to break
Brittany Hambleton
Brittany Hambleton
March 10, 2020 ·  5 min read

Planned Obsolescence: The Products You Buy are Designed to Break

You hear it every time the microwave stops working, your iPhone screen cracks, the blender’s motor burns out, or the coffee pot starts leaking. As soon as something breaks down, you hear the voice of your dad, your aunt, your grandpa, or even your middle-aged neighbor, declaring “they don’t make ‘em like they used to!”

Your typical reaction is probably just to disregard their comments as another cheap shot in the never-ending Boomer versus Millennial battle, but this is one instance where their argument might actually be valid.

According to economists, today’s appliances really aren’t made to last.

Planned Obsolescence

Planned Obsolescence is defined as a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life so that it becomes obsolete (i.e., unfashionable, or no longer functional) after a certain period of time [1].

Some manufacturers will also limit the consumer’s ability to fix the product themselves, by using digital locks or copyrighted software, gluing components together, or simply refusing to share the repair manual [2].

The computer giant Apple was famously sued for this after admitting that the company purposely slowed down older iPhones with software updates to force consumers to purchase a new phone [3].

Unfortunately, Apple is not the only company using this strategy. Printer cartridges are another good example of obvious planned obsolescence. Microchips, light sensors, or batteries can disable a cartridge long before the ink is actually gone, which forces you to go out and buy a new one [4].

Why do Companies do This?

The obvious answer is that these manufacturers are simply looking out for their bottom line. The more frequently the customer has to come back for a new model, the more money the company stands to make [3].

This is absolutely true but doesn’t tell the whole story. A large part of the issue falls back on what drives our economy: money. 

In order for our economy to continue running, we need people to spend money. When you make a purchase, that money goes into a business. That business is then able to pay their workers, who are then able to go out and spend more money and continue the cycle.

So companies need to encourage the public to keep tapping their credit cards, not just for their bottom line, but for the economy as a whole. One way to do this is through advertising, which we are besieged with every day.

You can’t open up your phone, turn on the radio, or even walk five minutes out your door without having a company try to sell something to you. Advertisers are constantly trying to convince us that we need whatever it is they’re selling, and they’re usually successful. In our consumerist society, the constant need to buy more has people spending thousands of dollars on products they really don’t need.

If advertising doesn’t quite do the trick, however, planned obsolescence certainly will. Maybe you were satisfied with your old cell phone model, and had no interest in the “latest and greatest”. That’s fine, but if your phone simply stops working, you don’t really have a choice, do you? [1]

When Did This All Start?

Planned obsolescence is a relatively new practice, so the old idiom is true- they really don’t make them like they used to. 

The turn of the twentieth century saw an incredible amount of innovation across all industries. Manufacturers were able to make high-quality goods at a much quicker pace, that lasted longer and were more affordable for the average consumer.

The problem, as manufacturers quickly realized, was that these products were too high-quality, and were not deemed healthy for the economy [1].

That’s when the Phoebus Cartel stepped in. On December 23, 1924, a group of some of the world’s top businessmen in the lightbulb industry got together and formed a supervisory body that divided up the worldwide incandescent lightbulb market. Each manufacturer was given its own national and regional zone, and assigned a production quota.

The cartel itself only lasted into the thirties, but it left behind a long-lasting legacy. Previously, the average lightbulb had a life span of fifteen hundred to two thousand hours. The cartel created a new standard lightbulb that only burned for one thousand hours. They rationalized this to consumers by saying that their light bulbs burned brighter and were more efficient.

Not surprisingly, they were also more expensive [5].

A Problem for the Environment

Not only is planned obsolescence bad for your pocketbook, it is also harming our environment. Part of the effect comes from the manufacturing process. All of our tech gadgets require rare earth elements, flame retardants, and chemicals in order to operate.

If our phones, computers, and pads aren’t recycled properly, elements like mercury, lead, hexavalent chromium, and cadmium can leach into the earth and pollute our soil and water.

It is estimated that approximately fifty million tonnes of e-waste is generated around the world every year. There is a growing amount of awareness in the United States about how to safely dispose of these products, however, there are many other countries that do not have effective systems in place for disposing of the products [6].

It’s Time to Simplify

The nature of our economy has turned us into a throw-away society, and both our environment and our wallets are feeling the effects. Landfills are bursting at the seams, our oceans are filling up with plastic, and our credit card bills are maxing out with a number of arguably unnecessary purchases.

Yes, there are certain products, like cell phones and cars, that have become necessary components of our lives, but is having the latest model always necessary? As consumers, everything we purchase impacts us, our economy, and the environment. We are at a point in human history where we need to start making more conscious and informed choices about not only what we buy, but also how often we throw it away for something new.

Keep Reading: What If Nestlé and Coke Had to Clean Up Their Own Plastic Pollution?