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?
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. If this wasteful culture is not changed, our legacy will be piles of hazardous waste and a poisoned water supply. 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.
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”. 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.