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Eco Facts

What Is Planned Obsolescence And Does It Impact Sustainability?

Written by Allie Willison, Staff Writer at Blueland

May 18, 2021

“They don’t make ‘em like they used to,” isn’t that what all the old folks say? In some cases, they happen to be right.

Does your grandma still have that Singer sewing machine that somehow runs even though it witnessed the Great Depression? What about your aunt who’s vacuum from 1982 still somehow cleans better than a full staff of cleaners? Why is it that products have gone up in cost, but down in quality? The answer is planned obsolescence.

What Is Planned Obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence is “the practice of making or designing something (such as a car) in such a way that it will only be usable for a short time so that people will have to buy another one.”

An example of this is cell phones. A lot goes into creating that little computer in your pocket, it requires precious metals such as cobalt, copper, gold and other conflict minerals, as well as plastics, silicones and resins, all things that need to be manufactured again and again whenever the new iPhone 22 comes out. Between these natural and manmade materials, just think about how much waste that creates.

Then to think, the average time someone keeps a smartphone is only between two to three years.

This of course, is only one example. There has been criticism of the automotive industry as well since the very conception of planned obsolescence in the 1920s, though at that time they couldn’t have foreseen the environmental impact of the practice.

So where do we go from here?

How does planned obsolescence impact sustainability?

The most basic reasoning as to why planned obsolescence hurts sustainability is that if something does not work-- or it breaks quickly-- then the item must be produced again and purchased again which creates more undue waste.

Here’s how this leads to more waste:

  • The manufacturing process has to repeat-- leading to more emissions and waste during production
  • The shipping process leads to more emissions
  • There is a good chance the original will end up in a landfill
  • Certain kinds of waste, such as electronics, are especially difficult to dispose of
  • Many products are produced with mostly plastic parts which are hard to properly recycle

There is no doubt that planned obsolescence is harmful to the environment and to a goal of sustainability. With major companies that we rely on-- like Apple, Samsung, Amazon-- creating products that are definitely not built to last, where does that leave us?

Is There A Solution To Planned Obsolescence?

In France Apple and Samsung went under fire due to the planned obsolescence in their products. Apple admitted that older iPhone models were deliberately slowed down through software updates. This is after investigations by the US and Israel as well. This year Apple may face a settlement of $3.4 million to Chile over planned obsolescence as well as a 60 million euro lawsuit from the Italian consumer association Altroconsumo.

The Right to Repair & fair repair concepts began with the auto industry in Massachusetts, who was the first state to pass a Motor Vehicle Owner's Right to Repair Act. in 2012. Following in these footsteps there are currently many groups looking to expand this right to other consumer products.

The Digital Right to Repair Coalition was founded in 2013 to carry the same principles to technology, and have expanded to cover many kinds of products. There have been fights against major companies who have come for small repair shops for their products, a recent one including a one man repair shop in Ski, Norway-- one which Apple didn’t let go of easy. Henrik Huseby fought tooth and nail in the ultimate David and Goliath showdown, to which the Norwegian Supreme Court backed him at first and eventually folded to Apple. This caused an outcry from Right to Repair activists and shows there’s still a long way to go before major companies will be held fully accountable for their practices.

What does a future without planned obsolescence look like for consumers and businesses?

Aiming for things that last will take changes, compromises, and effort from both consumers and companies. There has to be an active and purposeful change made to how we consume products that create less waste, are better for our environment, and that will last in the long run.

The best way to create a new consumer ideal is through trust. Consumers, manufacturers, and businesses have to create a web of trust so everyone knows what they’re getting out of a transaction. For example, shifting manufacturing away from plastics and back to raw materials. Working in ethical and sustainable ways when creating products. Being transparent in their business practices. While consumers have to be more open minded to change.

Businesses can speak with their dollar too, by supporting other businesses and efforts that reflect their values. In a recent study from the Shelton Group, it showed that 64% of consumers who said it’s "extremely important" for a company to take a stand on a social issue said they were "very likely" to purchase a product based on that commitment. Plus, 86% of consumers said it was important for companies to take a stand on social and environmental issues.

How can we combat planned obsolescence?

We can understand why planned obsolescence became the behemoth it is. The past 30 years has shown us the biggest technological advances in human history, we are addicted to the new. While innovation should always be celebrated, it’s also important to take care of what’s lasting and not lose sight of the real future-- one where our planet and people are equally happy.

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