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Consumer Injustice

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Planned obsolescence is the conscious design of products to have a restricted usable lifetime. In December 2017, Apple admitted to intentionally slowing down older iPhone models. This resulted in several lawsuits being filed against the company. According to Apple, the feature was put in place to prevent operational faults due to ageing batteries.

Was this just a money-making scheme to force people into purchasing the newest version of the iPhone? Is it fair for customers to be spending a considerable amount of money on a product that is not built to last? Or could planned obsolescence actually benefit our society in the long run?

Consumer injustice?

Relying on product failure is not a valid business strategy. Planned obsolescence may encourage a competitive market, but it inevitably leads to a more rapid turnover of products. In a world overshadowed by global warming, designing products to fail is an unacceptable waste of materials and energy. It leads to consumers continuously replacing products instead of repairing them, which contributes to excessive landfill and the depletion of natural resources.

What makes the waste issue even worse is the fact that companies rarely plan for disposal of the product at the end of its life, thus taking no responsibility for the damage to the environment and landfill problems they are causing. If a company plans obsolescence into a design, consideration should at least be given to how the product could eventually be recycled[5]. If this wasteful culture is not changed, our legacy will be piles of hazardous waste and a poisoned water supply[6]. Manufacturers as well as consumers must work together to ensure this does not become a reality.

Planned obsolescence can cause company-customer estrangement, brought about by the consumer being continually let down by the product. This in turn causes a reduction in customer loyalty and pushes customers to find a more reliable alternative elsewhere. While the consumer may ultimately have a more satisfactory product experience with a better alternative, the company could fail as a result, especially in industries with a competitive market.

The morality issue occurs when the company has a monopoly on the market, meaning that there are no alternative suppliers from which customers can seek a better product. Although companies have a legal requirement to maximise profits for their shareholders, there should be a moral code that they adhere to, especially in cases of monopoly or oligopoly. Contrary to popular belief, many sources suggest that this process of repurchasing from monopolistic markets actually restrains innovation, essentially causing companies to become lethargic in their approach towards R&D.

Perhaps the most famous case of oligopolistic planned obsolescence was the Phoebus cartel case in the 1920s. Occurring between several major light bulb manufacturers, the lifetime of the product was intentionally reduced by 150%, with fines in place for companies whose products exceeded a lifetime threshold. In this way, the cartel reset the standard to which light bulbs were expected to last. Ultimately this meant that customers were unknowingly worse off with the new substandard products as the lifetimes were brought down insidiously over several years.

A catalyst for growth?

On the flipside, a constant demand for new products to replace the current ones after they have become obsolete promotes design development. With companies competing against each other to offer the most appealing upgrade, products are continually refined to enhance their performance and accumulate an impressive array of innovative features. As well as improving the overall quality of a product, the regular evaluation of designs ensures that products remain up to date with the requirements and limitations of the current society.

Furthermore, it is often inevitable that products will become obsolete at some point. Designs go out of fashion or are no longer compatible with our ever-changing lifestyle. This is particularly relevant in technology, whereby an increasing number of people rely on several apps connected across various devices to maintain an efficient routine. In this rapidly-developing industry, it is difficult to predict which products will still be used 10 years from now and which will become obsolete.

Domestic Circular Flow of Income and Spending
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The knowledge that products will not need to last beyond a given time frame can be used to an advantage. It removes the need for having replacement parts available worldwide for repairing many existing products, which would be expensive. Instead, manufacturers stock parts for a specific length of time with the confidence that, by the time the current supply has run out, a new and improved version of the product will have been created.

Encouraging people to purchase new models directly boosts the economy. If consumers purchase one product with a lifetime guarantee, spending reduces, firms collapse, unemployment rises, and insufficient taxes exist to help the unemployed. Consumerism is the backbone of modern society and companies would be doing a disservice to society in making all products futureproof.

Most markets are consumer driven. The current culture is for consumers to own the latest product model and discard current models for newer version. It would be foolish for companies to invest in extending product lifetimes just for premature disposal. A prime example is the men’s razor industry. It used to be a big day when a father bought his son his own ‘straight blade razor’, which was made to last him his whole lifetime. Now that consumers travel so much more, convenience reigns and razors are purchased for a couple pounds each week. For this reason, demanding organisations to increase the lifetime of their products is futile in our current society.

Henry Ford said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”[12]. In agreement with Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction, regular production of newer models means smaller incremental changes, allowing organisations to invest profits into the development of newer technologies. This opens huge industries, such as the App industry, which is expected to be worth trillions by 2021, employing thousands of people and paying millions of pounds in tax. Innovation drives economic growth and the production of lifelong goods does not foster innovation in a firm.

14 thoughts on “Consumer Injustice

  1. I respectfully believe that we should aim towards the manufacturing of the best product possible, encouraging society to fix broken items that have been designed to last, thus teaching young people to appreciate their belongings and getting them excited about learning to repair their possessions. YouTube is a perfect example of fixing tutorials where this mentality thrives.

  2. Interesting article… our culture of checking deals on our smartphones has forced down prices of white goods. Retailers have to be ultra competitive and manufacturers often use the cheaper options to create margins. For example washing machines used to be built to last and engineers were trained to repair them. Now washing machines appear expendable and when faulty the consumer is often advised to replace rather than repair. A tricky dilemma, we the consumer want the best deal but as this article outlines it’s at a cost.

  3. I believe that continuous innovation is required to meet consumer demand, compete in the market and push the boundaries of technology. No product is perfect and therefore improvement will always be required. That said I don’t believe companies should deliberately design in disposability.

  4. I believe that the threat to our environment posed by our culture of disposability far outweighs the benefits that come from planned obsolescence. I also believe it is morally unjust to entice consumers in with the latest products and designs, coupled with extortionate price tags, only for these products to decline after a couple of years.

  5. Whilst clearly tech companies like Apple should be at the forefront of technological innovation, I believe that they have a duty to extend this innovation to environmental initiatives. From using more sustainable materials, improving manufacturing processes and offering better services and consumer education on how to recycle their used products, this would go some way to alleviating the environmental impact of either planned or inevitable technological obsolescence. However, it remains to be seen whether the market will address these issues of its own accord or whether government legislation on the disposability of products is necessary.

  6. I think a balanced approach is needed – I sympathise to some extent with manufacturers using cheaper materials as they want to innovate and launch a product to market at an acceptable price to the consumer while recuperating some R&D investment. In some areas, fast innovation is desperately needed, eg medical products. It is not OK, however, to have a product with so short a lifespan that it does not offer good value to the consumer.

    This issue seems to be primarily in areas where technology is advancing rapidly. Markets where products are more mature do have a range of options for durability, eg when buying a washing machine, the consumer has the choice of a cheap model which will last only a few years or an expensive one built with more durable materials which may last up to 20 years.

    Whether products are short-lived or long lasting, manufacturers should be using sustainable materials and manufacturing methods.

  7. Does planned obsolescence exist? Surely each producer makes a product that best meets the requirements of their target market, so that the consumer will buy it. In some cases a consumer requires a cheap single use item and at the other extreme they want something to pass on to their grand children. Monopolistic behaviour is controlled using laws to prevent it and protect the consumer, for example Microsoft being forced to unbundle explorer. Moral codes seldom work unless the producer can see that failure to comply will increase business risk or reduce competitiveness. The real issue is whether the limited lifespan articles can be sustainably produced, recycled or repurposed – that is where regulatory intervention is needed. A good example is the EU End of Life Vehicle Directive

  8. I really like this sentence: ” If a company plans obsolescence into a design, consideration should at least be given to how the product could eventually be recycled.” Excellent!

    “Planned obsolescence can cause company-customer estrangement, brought about by the consumer being continually let down by the product” Another good sentence; don’t forget the Care Ethics angle here!

    “With companies competing against each other to offer the most appealing upgrade, products are continually refined to enhance their performance and accumulate an impressive array of innovative features.” – Is healthy competition a virtue? Certainly striving to do better and better could be seen as virtuous.

    A fascinating article to read, please expand and develop the ethical angles. I’ve suggested two.

  9. I think the biggest problem with devices that last such a short time is that they all use various materials that are in short supply and are difficult to recycle – this adds up when millions and millions of phones / tablets / whatever are thrown away instead of being taken to pieces. Better recycling rules, perhaps spearheaded by the manufacturers, could help with this – and a “trade-in” system where older devices are sent back to the manufacturer in return for a discount on new products could encourage this even further, and satisfy the consumer instead of making them feel like they’re being sold things with a purposefully short lifespan.

  10. If there is no planned obsolescence and goods are not ‘throw away’ then a support network for maintenance and repair is needed, including parts and people with skills to replace them. For example, early kettles and hairdryers would be taken for repair when they broke, but today they are simply discarded. The cost of this support will ultimately be borne by the consumer. Are consumers happy to spend time and money sourcing repair providers or would they prefer to replace – quicker and easier?

  11. A great and professional article. I heard the event about Apple’s throttling CPU behavior. Actually, apple did optimize the product, which mitigate batteries ageing and smooth out overall performance. However, this benefit comes with depriving, therefore, I think there is necessary for Apple to inform the customers the consequence. The customers own the product, so they should have the authority to decide whether need to throttle CPU preforming to protect their battery, as some customers may choose to maintain the smooth operation and they prefer to keep a good using experience. In other words, the action of Apple is more like a commercial strategy to increase the market for new product, which ignore the rights and interests of consumer, this is not fair to the consumer.

  12. Interesting article. I disagree with the idea that this is neccasirily responsible for greater enviromental issues. The materials and design of the object is much more signifincant in its overall effect on the enviroment than its lifetime. A good example of this is cars where despite cars often being designed to last much beyond 30k miles, people will sell them and buy another new one, just for the sake of having a new car. I also think in certain industries (such as phones/comupting) where moores law is appliciable, obolosence is inherent due to the rate of technological advancement. Therefore why not include this in the design planning. Also it is good for the general economy and promotes consumer spending and jobs. Maybe new companies with a reputation for durability need to develop to challenge companies that design in oblesence.

  13. Interesting topic I would say! In many cases, large corp tends to have a sustainable income so why they should bother focusing on using recyclable materials instead of quality? I do agree with the statement : ” If a company plans obsolescence into a design, consideration should at least be given to how the product could eventually be recycled.” However, I think it’s also related to the consumer demand. Do the consumer care about the life span of the product?

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