PLANNED OBSOLESCENCE: How Companies Encourage Hyperconsumption

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– Like many of their professors, students at the Sorbonne had become used to going to buy their ink cartridges from a small shop on a nearby street. With no manufacturer affiliations, it carried shelves full of ‘generic’ cartridges that worked with printers from big name brands like Epson, Canon, HP and Brother. But that small shop soon faced a very big problem: some new printers only recognise ‘proprietary’ consumables that they can detect by matching their hardware signature against a signature in a chip on the cartridge. Anybody hoping to get round that by using a syringe to top up their existing cartridge with new ink was soon caught out because the chips can also track ink levels. But try seeing things from the manufacturers’ point of view: print cartridge sales can represent up to 90% of their turnover, so it’s not hard to see why they want to prevent consumers from going elsewhere. This process of trapping consumers in an endless cycle of buying more by supplying products that soon become unusable or beyond repair has taken on the almost cult name of ‘planned obsolescence.

This rather abstract term hides a whole range of manufacturing and marketing techniques that all share a single aim: encouraging consumers to buy more to keep factories busy and products flying off the shelves. The easiest way to achieve this is to reduce a product’s life cycle by employing different techniques that lead to a constant squeeze on labour costs and a wasteful use of natural resources, with little concern for the current shortages in raw materials, although the practice has managed to hold back the price of rare metals and copper.

From disposable light bulbs to the iPad 2

Just after the First World War, the future of filament-based electric bulbs looked very bright when a commercial agreement between the Allies and Germany was signed. Before the ink was even dry on the Treaty of Versailles, Dutch firm Philips, the American General Electric and German Osram joined forces with other European and Japanese companies in an agreement to limit the lifespan of their light bulbs and fix prices as part of the Phoebus cartel.

But it would take the simultaneous arrival of the Depression and Frederick Taylor’s theory of scientific management to bring about the idea that it was both technically possible and commercially desirable to stimulate demand in the consumer. Often quoted as the first recorded mention of the term ‘planned obsolescence’, this 1932 text by Bernard London puts the problem as follows:

“In a word, people generally, in a frightened and hysterical mood, are using everything that they own longer than was their custom before the depression. In the earlier period of prosperity, the American people did not wait until the last possible bit of use had been extracted from every commodity. They replaced old articles with new for reasons of fashion and up-to-dateness. They gave up old homes and old automobiles long before they were worn out, merely because they were obsolete.”

For industrialists, the idea represented something of a commercial Holy Grail, a way to create more demand in a market that was already saturated. How could they sell more fridges, cars and shoes to customers that already had what they needed? They had three main solutions:

  • technical: built weaker, less durable products that are impossible to repair;
  • design: artificially age older products by making them seem old-fashioned and out-of date;
  • legal: lobby for new legal requirements and standards that mean customers have to buy a new product to stay within the law.

Not every industry uses all three methods. Built-in technical planned obsolescence is more common with white goods (fridges, ovens and so on), but brand new designs and increasingly short turnaround times in between different generations of the same product is a something of a speciality for consumer electronics manufacturers. Apple has managed to achieve remarkable success by using both methods at the same time: its Macs are entirely proprietary and very difficult for the user to modify; if you try taking one apart yourself, you’ll find you’re no longer covered by the guarantee.

They form a closed system, meaning it’s hard to switch the hard drive or graphics card, or tweak the performance in any way, because the manufacturer is the only one that supplies the parts. Finally, software and hardware updates come along incredibly frequently. The manufacturer’s ‘addicted’ fans are encouraged by incessant publicity to upgrade to the latest expensive mobile phone, laptop or MP3 player—despite the fact that Apple’s products are part of the same low-cost supply chain with poorly-paid workers and cheap raw materials as everybody else’s. The firm’s main sub-contractor, Foxconn, uses parts of its factories to work on products for Apple’s rivals, including HP, Sony, Intel and Dell.

Writing planned obsolescence into law: the ‘lift cartel’

A great example of this ‘forced consumption’ is the humble lift.  The four main lift cabin manufacturers, Thyssenkrupp, Koné, Otis and Schindler, appealed to the French standards-setting body, AFNOR, after fatal accidents in Amiens and Strasbourg. They expressed their concerns to the minister, Gilles de Robien, who tabled a law that will lead to a huge replacement programme to ensure the country’s lifts are safe to run between 2013 and 2018.  This safety-critical upgrade is set to cost between four and eight billion euros.

But according to a report by Parisian councillor Ian Brossat published last year by Marianne2, the programme is very unlikely to be of much use to the general public. It’s not the lift cabins themselves that cause problems, but poor maintenance carried out by overworked technicians.  And the two accidents that led to the de Robien law were both triggered by insufficient maintenance …

These techniques have certainly had the desired effect. According to a joint report by Friends of the Earth and the French Centre for Independent Information on Waste, despite the fact that the market for manufactured goods was already saturated by the beginning of the 1980s, purchases of electronic and electrical equipment have grown six-fold since the 1990s. In the same time, another report by consumer organisation Que Choisir has shown that the average lifespan for white goods has fallen from 10-12 years before 2000 to just 6-8/9 years today.

A trend in favour of consumption

Guarantees and warranties, which have been getting shorter and shorter since the start of the last decade, represent the final chapter in this story. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, journalist Jane Spencer observed that “in the past year Dell Computer has slashed warranty periods from three years to one.”  At the same time, Apple’s earliest iPods were amongst the first products to offer users a mere 90 days of protection.

That’s just three months. The rapid reduction in labour costs in Asia, South Africa and former Eastern Bloc countries has meant that even pricey gadgets are now seen as disposable. Repairing is left to geeks, eco-activists or anybody nostalgic enough to still have an old soldering iron.

Putting these various ways of implementing planned obsolescence to one side though, it’s propaganda—in the original sense of the word, being able to convince the masses—that has had the biggest impact.  It has served to maintain the idea that using these techniques is legitimate, despite the disastrous consequences they have for society and the environment. Edward Bernays, the so-called ‘father of public relations’ goes much further than Bernard London ever did. His work contains the real basis of the idea that consumerism is a social fait accompli that now defines how we think about ourselves, what we do and our interactions with others. Woodrow Wilson asked the Austrian to help him encourage the American people to join the war effort in 1917, and in his 1928 book Propaganda, he explains how, while working for Lucky Strike, he managed to persuade women to start smoking.

Previously seen as primarily a men’s activity, Bernays succeeded in convincing American women to take up the habit by giving leading suffragettes free cigarettes and encouraging them to brandish them as ‘torches of freedom.’  This inversion of social meaning by attaching an artificial political meaning to an ordinary consumer product foreshadowed Noam Chomsky’s idea of ‘manufacturing consent.’

When marketing finally won the day over engineering, non-durability became a principle of industrial design forever.  But even before then, it was a social construct, as Victor Lebow, a distributor, explained in a 1955 article that is examined in documentary film The Story of Stuff:

“Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … we need things consumed, burned up, replaced and discarded at an ever-accelerating rate.”

Permanent consumption is seen as proof of a happy, fulfilled life and leaves individuals with only one objective, accumulating and replacing material goods, with design contributing to making them more or less attractive. The mobile phone, the car, and the watch are the three examples par excellence of this vision. Linked with Bernays’ idea that we take pleasure in destroying our obsolete possessions, this world view also has echoes of Freud’s ‘death drive’, something also found in the writing of John Maynard Keynes by Gilles Dostaller and Bernard Maris. Except that at the time, the two economists were hoping to find an explanation for what had gone wrong with the system that led to it to destroying itself. But there is no reason to make the distinction: bankers and businessmen are consumers like the rest of us, but on a different scale. On their scale, the talk is of systemic crises rather than planned obsolescence. And these crises, we’re told, are equally vital in keeping the whole system turning.

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