In the good old days, things were built to last. Some people still have the watches and clocks of their ancestors in working condition and they want to conserve them for generations to come. In fact, many products, which were manufactured during the pre-World War II era, have found to be long-lasting. The cars made before WW II are till driven in the streets of Tana. The wooden-case radios of 1940s, the “marmite” of the grandmothers, the boots and over-coats of the grandfathers who served as pioneers in the British army in the Middle East – they have survived the test of time and they may be lying in the stores of some Mauritian families. The old bicycles inherited from our grandfathers will surely outlive the new trendy but short-lasting cycles which we currently offer as gifts to our kids.
In today’s economy, industries will close doors and millions of works will be laid off if products are designed to stay for life. Therefore, the strategy is to encourage consumers to buy more and be engaged in an endless cycle of buying and replacing the products in order to keep factories running and products flying off the shelves. The easiest way to achieve this is to reduce the life cycle of a product. This is known as economics of planned obsolescence. There is, however, the nuance between the inevitable process of technological development rendering a product obsolete and the calculated and deliberate attempts of the manufacturers to force a product to become obsolete.
The origin of planned obsolescence can be traced as far back as 1932 when Bernard London published a pamphlet entitled “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, advocating for a plan to stimulate and perpetuate consumption. Planned obsolescence is also associated with the infamous “Light Bulb Conspiracy”, a commercial agreement signed between the Allies and Germany immediately after the first World War in order to limit the lifespan of their light bulbs. In terms of this deal, no one should manufacture durable light bulbs that would ultimately put business in jeopardy. There was even an ominous anecdote to the fact that the manufacturers of durable lamps died or their companies went bankrupt but their light bulbs survived for years !
In fact, it was in the mid-20th century that the application of planned obsolescence gained momentum as a business strategy. Henceforth, products are designed to break easily or to quickly go out of style. Manufacturers are taking conscious decisions to produce a consumer good that will become obsolete in a defined timeframe. Industrialists use different methods to render a product obsolete. They use built-in technical device or use lower-grade components to make the product weaker, less durable and impossible to repair. They also deliberately alter the system in the product in such a way to make its continued use difficult. Some of the changes are cosmetic, making the product look old-fashioned and out of date. Some industrialists would even lobby for new legal requirements and standards that would oblige customers to buy a new product as replacement in order to stay within the law.
Just make a quick assessment of how fast your household goods or office equipment have become obsolete and how many times they had to be replaced. By making the cost of repairs comparable to the replacement-cost or by refusing to provide service or parts any longer, the user has no alternative but to purchase a new one. For example, some products have the battery soldered into the circuitry such that it would be difficult to resolder a new battery, thus making them functionally obsolete. Another example is inkjet printer which is incorporated with a smart chip in the ink cartridge to prevent it from being used after a certain threshold, even though the cartridge may still contain usable ink or could be refilled !!
Deliberate attempt to make a product obsolete is very common in the IT sector. New software is frequently introduced so that it is not compatible with the older one. This makes the older software largely obsolete. Even though an older version of a word processing programme is operating correctly, it might not be able to read data saved by newer versions. Very often the notion of obsolescence is instilled in the minds of the consumers by a marketing strategy. Marketers attempt to wear out a product in the mind of the consumer by creating an illusion of change. This is known as perceived obsolescence which convinces consumers to throw away stuffs that are perfectly useful. Fashion is all about perceived obsolescence. For example, consumers are influenced by publicity to buy new clothes so as to be trendy or stylist, and thus leaving the perfectly good ones in closets as moth fodder. While planned obsolescence has been severely criticised by consumer lobbies as means of maximisation of profits for the producer at the expense of the consumer and environment, others have defended it as a necessary driving force behind innovation, improvement of lifestyle and economic growth. However, consumers very often see planned obsolescence as a sinister plot by manufacturers to fleece them. Manufacturers are resorting to thousands of techniques to trap consumers in an endless cycles of buying more, by supplying products that soon become unusable or beyond repair. There are cases where products start to fall apart as soon as the warranty period is over and even before the loan is paid.
Continuously replacing, rather than repairing, products creates more waste and pollution ; uses more natural resources and results in more consumer spending. The economics of obsolescence, viewed from an ethical angle, seems to have a negative impact on human life by causing an increase in living costs as products must be bought multiple times and a decline in environmental systems due to greater resource extraction and waste generation.