Planned Obsolescence and How to Avoid it

Are you the kind who likes to buy things that will last? If so, you’re definitely not alone, and there are many reasons why people prefer to buy things that won’t break after one to five years.

One big reason is that it’s better for the environment. When we buy products designed to last, we use fewer resources and create less waste. Another reason is that buying quality goods can save us money in the long run.

So if you’re looking for ways to be more sustainable, one thing you can do is avoid buying products with planned obsolescence.

What is Planned Obsolescence?

Ever wonder why your mobile phone seems to break just a few months after you buy it or why the appliance you purchased stops working soon after the warranty expires?

You’re not going crazy, and it’s not a coincidence! It’s called planned obsolescence, and it’s a common business model among many manufacturers.

So called planned obsolescence happens when a product lifespan is deliberately designed to be outdated or unusable after a certain period. This practice encourages consumers to continually buy new products, boosting sales and profits for companies.

Is Planned Obsolescence Destructive to the Environment?

Almost undoubtedly, yes.

While some argue that planned obsolescence is good business, others believe it’s unethical. Factually, it’s highly destructive to the environment. We live on a planet with finite resources and finite space. At some point, we will exhaust our resources and space available to dump all those broken products.

Planned obsolescence could work in a world with infinite resources and places to dump the garbage. But that isn’t the world we live in.

When products are designed with inferior parts, they end up in landfills rather than being repaired or reused. Much of the global north ships their electronic waste, textile waste, and other broken products to developing countries in the global south that are willing to pollute their land in exchange for payouts.

There is blame on both sides here, but the real problem lies with the amount of waste being generated in the first place.

As our society becomes more aware of planned obsolescence, it remains to be seen whether this practice will continue or if manufacturers will be forced to change their ways. In France, planned obsolescence is illegal.

Types of Planned Obsolescence

Programmed Obsolescence

When you try to update your device, the new operating system is no longer compatible. You searched and found that, unfortunately, the only solution is to buy a replacement. This shows that new software updates can often force consumers into buying newer products due to built in obsolescence.

Consider your smartphone. It works well; you can make calls, send texts, and utilise various applications, but after several upgrades, you discover that your phone isn’t capable of handling it all. You may also find that the most recent operating systems are no longer compatible with your device. There’s nothing else for it except to purchase a new model mobile phone.

Companies often deliberately release updates that render products unusable to force people to buy new versions. Yinong Chen, a computer science professor at Arizona State University, says, “Planned obsolescence is a violation of an engineer’s code of ethics.”

Perceived Obsolescence

Clever marketing is one of the most frequent forms of planned obsolescence. You don’t have to be dissatisfied with your goods or wait for them to break to replace them.

This often happens with new mobile phone but also on social media. With the rise of UGC or user-generated content, more people are making videos on TikTok, YouTube, or Instagram showing off a shiny new product they bought.

While your phone is likely capable of everything you need, does it have all the bells and whistles that everyone else’s does? If not, the marketing experts will tell you that you’re already behind. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) is a powerful motivator, and businesses are well aware of this. Before purchasing a new models, consider if you truly need to make that purchase.

Structural Obsolescence (or Contrived Durability)

If all companies valued their customers as much as they valued making a profit, then contrived durability (deliberately creating products that break down over time) would be obsolete. Contrived durability is one of the more common forms of planned obsolescence. Items are cheaply designed and made to break within a few years, so you’ll be back in the market for a new product version.

Examples of Planned Obsolescence

If you’ve heard of planned obsolescence, you’ve likely read about it in the context of electronic devices, especially mobile phones. But there are actually tons of products that are built to break within a few years, including:

  • Clothing and shoes
  • Cars: Many automobile manufacturers rely on obsolescence to shorted the replacement cycle of new cars.
  • Appliances such as washing machines and dish washers.
  • Light bulbs: Many light bulbs have a short lifespan, we always opt for a low energy LED light bulb where possible.
  • Toys
  • Furniture
  • Small appliances such as electric toothbrushes.
  • Consumer electronics: TVs, video game consoles, computers and mobile phones.

Let’s talk about a few specific examples of planned obsolescence to help give you a sense of how common it is.

Unrepairable Phones, Computers, and other Consumer Electronics

Many consumer goods are designed with planned obsolescence in mind. It’s cheaper for manufacturers to produce new items than to replace parts. And often, spare parts are not available or are very expensive. As a result, consumers are forced to buy new devices instead of repairing their old ones.

Manufacturing new electronics requires precious resources, and the disposal of old ones creates e-waste. Planned obsolescence is a significant contributor to the growing problem of e-waste, and we need to be aware of it when we purchase new electronics.

planned_obsolescence- broken old smartphones
planned_obsolescence-broken_appliances that don't last

Appliances Don’t Last as Long as They Used To

Anyone who has ever shopped for a new appliance within the last decade has probably noticed that they don’t seem to last as long as they used to.

Fridges, washers, and dishwashers are all examples of appliances that used to last for decades but now only last for a few years. And often, once they break down, it’s impossible to repair them – you have to buy a new one.

The planned obsolescence of appliances is particularly troublesome because they’re such large and expensive items. And given the frequency with which they need to be replaced, they’re a significant source of e-waste.

Fast Fashion

In recent years, “fast fashion” has become increasingly popular, with many stores releasing new styles weekly. While this trend has made it easier than ever to keep up with the latest fashion trends, it has also led to a throw-away culture in which clothes are seen as disposable.

A key feature of business model is planned obsolescence, in which clothing is designed to fall apart after only a few wears. This ensures that customers will have to keep coming back for more, but it also creates mountains of waste.

To end this cycle of consumption and waste, we need to be more mindful of the clothes we buy and their impact on the environment. When choosing new clothes, look for durable products that are well-made and will last for years to come. Not only will this help reduce waste, but it will also save you money in the long run.

planned_obsolescence-fast fashion - pile of old cloths

Printers and Printer Ink

Printers are one of the most common pieces of technology in our homes and offices, but did you know they’re designed to break?

Even something as seemingly innocuous as printer ink cartridges are designed this way. The ink cartridges that come with most printers are only meant to last for a few hundred pages before they need to be replaced due to limited useable ink. And what’s even worse is that the price of a replacement ink cartridge is often unreasonable.

Many ink cartridges cannot be refilled, while others can only be refilled with specific ink or by certain retailers. This limited useful life detrimental to the environment due to the processing that goes into each ink cartridge and all the waste that results from it.

How to Spot Planned Obsolescence in the Wild?

Product Life Cycles are Shorter

One of the most common examples of planned obsolescence is when a product life cycle is shortened to encourage repeat purchases of replacement products.

Products are Designed or Programmed to Break Down or Become Obsolete

Another typical example of planned obsolescence is when products are designed to break down after a certain period.

Products are Made with Low-Quality Materials and Unreliable Parts

Many products are built with poor materials, making them more likely to break down or become outdated. For example, furniture or a television made with cheaper components that are more likely to break down, is an example of planned obsolescence.

Products are Made Obsolete by New Technologies

Planned obsolescence also applies when products are designed to become obsolete for buyers to demand the more recent versions.

VHS players were made obsolete by DVD players, and then DVD players were made obsolete by Blu-ray players. Even if you didn’t buy into Blu-ray, you might have purchased digital copies of movies you used to watch on DVD.

Steps to Avoid Planned Obsolescence

Educate Yourself on Planned Obsolescence

The first step to avoiding planned obsolescence is to educate yourself on the topic. By understanding how and why planned obsolescence exists, you’ll be better at avoiding it.

Become a More Mindful and Conscious Shopper

The second step is to become a more mindful shopper. This means taking the time to research products before you buy them and considering their long-term durability. Ask yourself if you need an item before making any purchase. Do you need it? Are you buying it from social media FOMO or purely for aesthetic reasons? What is your plan to store this item long-term?

Avoid Fast Fashion

As we mentioned earlier, planned obsolescence is rampant in the world of fashion. To avoid planned obsolescence, steer clear of these stores and opt for timeless pieces with a long useful life.

Buy Products from Companies that Don’t Use Planned Obsolescence

If you’re aware of planned obsolescence, you can take steps to avoid it by only buying products from companies that don’t use this strategy. Many ethical companies out there produce quality goods designed to last.

Invest in Quality Items

When making a purchase, always opt for quality over quantity. It’s better to have fewer, higher-quality items that will last for years than a closet full of short lived fashion that will fall apart after a few wears.

Repair Instead of Replace

If an item does break down, see if it can be repaired or upgraded instead of replaced. Planned obsolescence is often built into products, so they can’t be easily fixed, but this isn’t always the case.

Recycle, Sell, or Donate Your Items When You’re Done with Them

When you’re finally ready to get rid of an item, recycle or donate it instead of throwing it away. This will help reduce waste and keep usable products out of landfills. Selling the things you’re not using anymore is one of the most environmentally-friendly ways to declutter. When someone pays for an item, they’re far more likely to use it.

Wrapping Up

Planned obsolescence is a problem, but there are ways to avoid it. By being mindful of the products you buy and where you buy them from, you can help reduce planned obsolescence and its negative environmental impact.