Designed Obsolescence and How it Affects our Economy
Originally published on June 21, 2017
Designing your product to become less useful to your consumer seems like a poor idea on the surface. But almost every company intentionally designs their products to become obsolete within a few years. This forces you, the consumer, to have to buy a new product, more often than not from the same company that initially sold you the product. Things just are not designed to last and it seems like the old saying “they don’t make them like they used to” may actually be true.
A good example of this idea is a light bulb that has been running for 115 years. Seriously, check the webcam here. So if there was a light bulb that has run for this long why have I had to replace more bulbs than I can remember? Imagine you’re designing a product that will never break, never become outdated, and never need to be replaced. You start selling the product and you get a huge influx of cash from the first purchasers but then your sales slow to a crawl and eventually stops. Everyone buys your wonderful product and never need to buy a new one. This doesn’t only affect you but it affects all of your competitors and the whole industry collapses. This is a bit of an extreme example but it makes sense. So instead, you design a product that will break in 5 years. Now every 5 years everyone who bought it the first time has to come back and buy it again.
Okay so instead of buying a new product you just go to get it fixed. Most of the time, this costs more than a new product. For example, when you break your phone screen it can cost upwards of a $100 to replace the screen, which could be 20 percent of the original cost of the phone. And if that phone is already two years old it may cost more than the phone is worth. Sometimes you may be told that it can’t be fixed and you just have to buy a new one anyways. The company may just be supporting the company. You can’t get any sort of IT for Windows 95 anymore even though in direct comparison Windows 95 isn’t all that different from Windows 10 aside from some bells and whistles. I can keep coming up with examples all day long about how often you have to buy seemingly the same product over and over again.
Designed or planned obsolescence may not be something that can be stopped. Cars, computers, TV’s, and cell phones are constantly getting better and you will be much better off buying the new product instead of dragging along that old, slow product. Competition between companies forces companies to constantly develop new and innovative add-ons for their products. A company that remains stagnant in the development of new products is sure to lose market share and sales. A great example of this is the American automotive industry during the oil crisis in the 70’s and the development of new imports by Asian manufacturers.
However, planned obsolescence is not something of recent years; it has been going on for a very long time. Automotive manufacturers used to be pumping out newer models year after year so even a car that was only a year old would be visually different from the newer model. At least today we can expect a new car model to last 3 – 5 years before major changes will be done. In most cases, an intentional fault in the design does not cause a product to become obsolete; rather a new innovation will make the old product less useful in comparison. People have started to phrase this as functional obsolescence instead of planned or designed obsolesces.
The consumer electronics industry is most commonly the center for designed obsolesces. Many companies will only support their products with new software updates and tech help for 3 – 5 years. After that time span, you’re out of luck. The iPhone 4S was released 5 years ago, and in 2016 Apple announced that it will no longer be providing support for the 4S. Many consumers are not happy with this arrangement; unfortunately, they will eventually be forced to upgrade to a newer phone.
But planned obsolesces isn’t only happening in the electronics industry, it is also very prevalent in the clothing industry. Many clothes are designed to wear down faster to the point where they require replacement. Nylon stockings are the prime example of this.
Planned obsolesces has laid the groundwork for our very disposable lifestyle. Plastic water bottles, disposable cameras, even car tires have all been developed or designed to require the consumer to buy replacements more often. This business plan has led us to become a throwaway society and most of us don’t bat an eye when something breaks. We will just go buy a new one because it is significantly easier than trying to fix the broken item. This may not necessarily be a bad thing though; many of the throwaway products are significantly cheaper to make and sell than the same product designed to last longer. In an economic sense, it is great for both the consumer and the producer. So chances are we will not see designed obsolescence go away anytime soon.
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