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  • Writer's picturePete Ward

Planned Obsolescence

Planned obsolescence (also called built-in obsolescence or premature obsolescence) is planning or designing a product to fail so that it becomes obsolete after a certain pre-determined period of time. The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases. It is the deliberate shortening of a lifespan of a product to force people to purchase functional replacements. But can a product reach a point of perfection? Can a product be universally appealing to all? Can a product be truly “timeless?”

In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard published The Waste Makers, promoted as an exposé of "the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals". Packard divided planned obsolescence into two sub categories: obsolescence of desirability and obsolescence of function.

"Obsolescence of desirability", also known as "psychological obsolescence", referred to marketers' attempts to wear out a product in the owner's mind. Packard quoted industrial designer George Nelson, who wrote:

Design ... is an attempt to make a contribution through change. When no contribution is made or can be made, the only process available for giving the illusion of change is "styling"!

Henry Ford did not like the constant stream of model-year changes because he clung to an engineer's notions of simplicity, economies of scale, and design integrity. Apple products designed under the direction of Steve Jobs, after much material and aesthetic experimentation in the 90’s, also reached a balance of engineering integrity and design simplicity. However, that balance has since been diluted, under the direction of Tim Cook, by offering Apple products in multiple color options, which I suspect Mr. Jobs would not have approved of.

Planned obsolescence tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly. Before introducing a planned obsolescence, the producer has to know that the customer is at least somewhat likely to buy a replacement from them in the form of brand loyalty. In these cases of planned obsolescence, there is an information asymmetry between the producer, who knows how long the product was designed to last, and the customer, who does not. When a market becomes more competitive, product lifespans tend to increase. For example, when Japanese vehicles with longer lifespans entered the American market in the 1960s and 1970s, American carmakers were forced to respond by building more durable products. However, when the biggest corporations buy up the smaller ones, such as GE, we have no choice but to participate in the consumer game of buy, discard, and repeat.

In a degrowth economy, products are the epitome of high design in sustainability, durability, functionality, ergonomics, and – by the nature of good design – aesthetics. Imagine a product so well designed that no alternative is necessary or desirable, nor any advertisements with subtle manipulative tactics persuading you to purchase this item.

See also:

Sierra - The Magazine of the Sierra Club


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