Planned obsolescence and the environment

First published June 2008, updated September 2010

In an earlier article, I wrote on the subject of perceived obsolescence and its impact on the environment. Perceived obsolescence is basically about fashion and trends; usually steered by clever marketing.

Planned obsolescence can be equally as seedy at times in that it’s implemented as a strategy by some (many?) manufacturers in order that you buy more often.

Ever noticed how some items seem to die as soon as the warranty period has expired? Or that a single component costs so much to replace? It’s not a coincidence, this is likely planned obsolescence and it’s fuelling our tendency towards hyperconsumption.

A colleague of mine worked in the washing machine industry, designing components for a major manufacturer. He told me that while the machines generally were of high quality, there were certain parts designed to break down within X period of time. If the company chose to spend a couple of dollars more, the same parts could last many times longer. Because the parts were specific to the machine, generic replacements were hard to come by; so customers would have pay a huge amount for the replacement – which explains why the machines were reasonably cheap to start out with.

Another colleague was an ink cartridge refiller who started out in the mid 90’s in what was then a new industry. People would buy small plastic cartridges containing a piddling amount of ink and once those had run out, bin them and buy a new one. Millions upon millions of these cartridges wound up in landfill and still do today.

My enterprising pal would refill them at half the cost and offered a mobile service, visiting many businesses around town. The ink refilling industry took off and the printer companies started threatening voiding warranties if people used these refilled cartridges.

The new cartridges did and still do cost a fortune – and that’s why they practically give away printers these days; the companies more than make up the cash in consumables. That’s one of the reasons ink cartridges are so small – so you’ll need to replace them more often.

Sometimes planned obsolescence isn’t so much about getting you to buy high priced replacement parts, but to buy a whole new product. In many instances, the use of inferior quality parts is not just case of the company trying to save money, but make it. The cost of parts is often quite close to buying a new product; so what do consumers do when an item breaks down; particularly if the item is reasonably inexpensive to replace? Buy a new one of course. Take the example of a toaster – they are as cheap as chips these days. If a toaster manufacturer can save a dollar in parts and they sell a million units – that’s a million dollars more in their pockets. Add to that the fact you may buy your next toaster from the same company and it’s a great way to make a bunch of cash.

Whether it’s cars, refrigerators, entertainment systems or kitchen appliances; planned obsolescence is now the norm instead of the exception. Planned obsolescence has become so much a part of our consumption, that manufacturers aren’t so concerned about you switching to another brand as it’s now generally accepted “stuff ain’t built like it use to be”. They know the line and they stay just inside it.

Even my brand name electric shaver, a name that was usually associated with excellence suffered the same fate. I went to replace the shaving block and screen; two small components, and found that the cost to do so was only $10 under buying the whole darned unit! After this happened a couple of times, I decided I no longer wanted to play this game and went back to shaving with a razor.

Another trick used by manufacturers is replacement dates – recommending replacements long before the part is anywhere near worn out. Using the shaver example, the manufacturer recommends replacing the screen and block every 12 months. They even provide a sticker to put on the razor to remind you of the date. While the parts may be engineered to only last that amount of time, careful use could extend their life, so it’s just another way for the manufacturer to remind you when it’s time to buy, buy, buy.

The cost of planned obsolescence not only hits the consumer hard in the wallet, but also our environment and millions of components are thrown away each year; usually winding up in landfill, not to mention the wasted resources that go into making junk.

Planned obsolescence became more popular in the 50’s when price was everything; but I think we’ve got to the stage now with it that many consumers are happy to pay a few dollars more in order to get a better product that lasts longer

How do we change this trend?

Planned obsolescence is somewhat a runaway train now unfortunately. There is little that we can do as individuals except to write to companies asking them to improve their quality and that we are prepared to pay more if they do so. If enough people take this action, maybe things will change.

The other thing we can do is to treat manufacturer replacement date recommendations with suspicion, unless of course it’s a safety issue.

Additionally, when something seems broken or depleted, use the power of the web to find alternatives or perhaps a cheap fix – a great example are the ink cartridges I mentioned earlier. Instead of throwing these environmental nasties out, you can buy refill kits that will save you a ton of cash and literally help save tons of cartridges going into landfill.

Finally, and the most important thing we can do is to look after the stuff we own a little better. Items tend to wear out faster if they aren’t maintained and we’ve generally become lazy.

Gone are the days of manufacturers providing us with oodles of information for maintenance, unless of course it’s going to make them money. Little things like lubricating, dusting or tightening a loose screw can extend the life of the products we buy, saving us money and also saving just that little bit more trash entering the waste stream before it really needs to.