The Rise of Planned Obsolescence
In 1924, the world’s top light bulb makers such as Phillips, Osram, and General Electric secretly formed the Phoebus cartel to standardize the lifespan of a light bulb to 1000 hours. But even way back then, they weren’t making ‘em like they used to, because light bulbs had been marketed lasting 1,500 and even 2,500 hours. The cartel was fixing the bulb sales game in its favor.
Planned obsolescence is a strategy companies use to keep consumers buying by artificially abbreviating their products’ lifespans.
It takes two main forms—technical obsolescence happens when a component is designed to break or wear out. Stylistic obsolescence arises when an object still functions, but it seems to need replacement because styles have changed—picture ever-shifting fashions and new generations of mobile phones.
Although the concept is generally thought to have arisen around the time of the Phoebus cartel emerged, the idea seems to have been floating around for at least a few centuries. This quote from 1690 is uncannily prescient:
“Fashion or the alteration of dress is a great promoter of trade, because it occasions the expense of cloaths before the old ones are worn out: it is the spirit and life of trade: it makes a circulation and gives value, by turns to all sorts of commodities: keeps the great body of trade in motion.”
London entrepreneur and builder Nicolas Barbon made that observation in his A Discourse on Trade, proving to be apt early observer of the drive to consume: “The wants of the mind are infinite, man naturally aspires, and as his mind is elevated, his senses grow more refined and more capable of delight.”
In the 1920s, General Motors president Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. thought of a way to get Americans to buy something pricey they probably already owned which probably worked fine, with the introduction of model years for automobiles. Each model year would have new features, it would look a little different—and by comparison the old car, through no fault of its own, would seem to lose value.
Environmental effects of industry like pollution and landfills were not of particular concern back then, but economist Stuart Chase saw trouble ahead. His 1925 critique of unchecked capitalism, The Tragedy of Waste, argued against planned obsolescence and conspicuous consumption. He compared free-market capitalism to cancer cells that exploit resources and eventually destroy the host.
In 1932, real estate broker Bernard London suggested using planned obsolescence to stimulate the economy and end the Depression. He wrote a paper proposing that that products have an expiration date, after which they would be considered dead and have to be turned over to the government. Fortunately, his proposal was ignored.
Post-World War II expansion saw the rise of the prolific and influential industrial designer Brooks Stevens who stylized autos, appliances, and other everyday objects to look streamlined and modern—which then also looked dated once something different came out, creating that desire for something new. Stevens also played a large role in popularizing the term “planned obsolescence” in 1954, which he defined as, “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.”
Then came The Waste Makers by Vance Packard, a criticism of the quantity-over-quality consumer culture as promoted by Stevens. In this 1960 bestseller, an impassioned Packard introduced “consumerism” as a negative concept, and he also brought up the eventual exhaustion of natural resources, which has become ever more relevant since then.
As consumer technology continued to improve over the next decades, home computers became affordable and commonplace, but they weren’t designed to be adaptable or updated for long. When new versions of software are released, they don’t work with previous versions, rendering more products obsolete. It’s the same story with many home game systems. When the Super Nintendo Entertainment System came out, it was not compatible with the original Nintendo games. Discarded PCs, laptops, and electronic devices have piled up, building to the current e-waste crisis.
The trend has been wholesale replacement of electronic devices and appliances rather than repair. Copyright laws prevent electronics manuals from being disseminated, and companies such as Toshiba have sued to keep laptop repair manuals off the Internet. This thwarts home repairs, so it would either be too inconvenient or preventatively expensive to send devices to the manufacturer to be fixed.
It goes on—some electronics have proprietary lithium ion batteries like laptops, cameras, mp3 players—sometimes those can’t be replaced, so the gadget must be replaced. Due to a lack of standardization with power cords, if a plug is lost or damaged for an otherwise functional older laptop, that’s the end of that laptop.
But obsolescence is not just about function. It’s also about desire and perception. The fashion industry’s fast fashion culture thrives on desire and it depends on consumers’ continuing perception that they need something new. Most people who can afford to buy clothes already have clothes that fit and protect their bodies from the elements, but because of stylistic obsolescence, they keep buying.
Fast fashion culture thrives on desire and it depends on consumers’ continuing perception that they need something new.
Just like Alfred P. Sloan inventing the automobile’s model year, purveyors of fashion are well served by having seasons—which are now splintered into even shorter time frames. Technological advances in sharing information (i.e., what’s hot on the runways) and manufacturing have shortened the life cycle of fashion seasons, trends (following what’s seen on the runway), and the clothes themselves. This also traces back farther than today’s ultra-compressed fashion cycles.
“Made in the U.S.” means well-made to some, but in fashion, Holly Price Alford, a professor in the Department of Fashion Design and Merchandising at Virginia Commonwealth University, points out the U.S. legacy of ripping off Parisian and London styles—setting a precedent for fast fashion.
She raises the example of Paul Poiret, the early 20th century French designer whose designs, like his iconic lampshade tunic, liberated women from the corset and introduced a modern silhouette. When Poiret traveled to America, he saw that his designs were already being copied.
“We are the kings and queens of knockoffs,” said Alford. “It was probably $100 for a [Poiret] dress. You can pay $30 for it here, that’s what we’re famous for. Our quality is not as expensive—[with knockoffs] they would do silk blends and cotton or rayon and sell it cheaper.”
Poiret vowed to never set foot in the U.S. again, but now copying the runway is expected part of the business. Much of the industry is powered by hastily produced knockoffs and and other items not made for quality but speed and affordability.
“I say that high fashion declined in the later ‘80s,” Alford said. “We start seeing that clothing can be manufactured quicker. In the ’80s for something to be produced you had probably three seasons. [But] today Zara can flip a product in two weeks.”
“Zara’s still great, but the fit is starting to become funny. When did a 6 fit like a 4? When you’re producing quickly, you’re not looking at the quality, what kind of cotton you’re using, et cetera.”
Planned obsolescence seems to be working out for those entities practicing it, but it’s clearly unsustainable for the planet. In 2013, the EU called for a total ban of planned obsolescence. And this spring in France, the hold of planned obsolescence was challenged by new French legislation requiring that manufacturers be forthcoming about lifespans of their products, and how long spare parts will be available, as well as an upcoming law requiring free replacement or repairs on faulty appliances for the first two years.