Perceived obsolescence – fashion and trends

(first published March 2008, updated December 2009) 

It’s that time of the year when companies take advantage of dollars floating around for gift purchases to tout the latest and “new and improved” products; the stuff you just have to have in order to remain current and maintain your social status.

Many people in my age group look back to the fashions of the late 70’s through the 80’s and cringe. Why is this? Back in those days, those styles were considered the epitome of good taste and being cool. What changed? Did the clothes suddenly become unwearable due to them falling apart?

No, we were simply told they were no longer fashionable. This is called perceived obsolescence.

Somebody (or more likely some company) told a bunch of people that X was out and Y was in. Each of those people told more; until such time that enough people were told that those who continued to wear the clothes were considered out of style. We believed it. We then bought the new clothes considered trendy in order to remain “cool”; leaving the perfectly good clothing we had hanging in our closets as moth fodder.

I’m using the fashion industry just as an example – there are many other products and services where we fall prey to the marketer’s ploy of perceived obsolescence – electronics is another.

We are simply told these things were obsolete by those we consider to be leaders, and we then perceive these items to be as such – just like that. We like to consider ourselves as individuals, but our need for acceptance within our peer group often makes us more like sheep; hence the term “sheeple”.

Perceived obsolescence is much like planned obsolescence in terms of designing a product or part of a product to only last a certain amount of time. The major difference with perceived obsolescence is that it works purely on a psychological level.

Seems crazy don’t you think? Highly intelligent beings falling for such an obvious scheme for us to part with our cash and impart further strain on the environment simply for the need to “look good” and being in style?

You can save a ton of cash and lighten your environmental footprint by being aware of these sorts of tricks and resisting them.

I had a computer business for quite a while and something I used to advise my customers was never to buy the latest and greatest of anything computer related; one of the reasons being that it would usually be bug-ridden. Hold off for a few months; get a better product that will likely last longer and at a cheaper price – this decreases the frequency of the upgrade cycle.

The same can be said for many different products, even in the green industry. For example, a device may be touted to save electricity. If you’re buying it to replace another working device and that device goes to landfill; the environmental impact of the green device may be more than if you had kept the old one until such time that it could no longer be used.

Ask yourself a few questions before falling into the trap of buying or asking for “new and improved” products as gifts:

  • are the new features being offered something I really need or even want at this time?
  • why do I really want to throw out the old and bring in the new – is it just vanity?
  • how long before I’m going to want to upgrade/change again?
  • is what I already have that bad?
  • is the Next Big Thing really that good or is it just hype?
  • what impact will me replacing x with y have on the environment?

The more of us who resist perceived obsolescence and demand durable and environmentally friendly products that have a timeless appeal in terms of design, the faster they’ll hit the market.

As for the tricks we’ve already fallen for that have caused us to accumulate so much stuff we don’t use or wear, try and see those items don’t go to waste by donating items such as clothes and electronics to worthy causes. It’s the second most important element of the 3R’s of a more environmentally friendly life: Reduce – REUSE – Recycle.