Are we going to plan ourselves into obsolescence?

“Back in my day, things were built to last.” – Every grandparent anywhere, ever.

Have you ever noticed how your fridge tends to die the day after warranty runs out? Or how it’s more expensive to replace a single part than to buy a whole new appliance? How newer cars seem to break down faster than the old ones ever did and how some spare parts just disappear from the market? Welcome to the world of planned obsolescence, the ultimate victory of capitalism and our surest method of self-destruction.

Dramatic, I know. It is Friday night and I am writing this post from my apartment in the Netherlands where I am currently doing a mobility thing as part of my PhD research and I can’t get over the fact that they seem to have it all figured out here with cycling obsession, the solar panels and windmills everywhere, the 100 km/h speed reduction on the highways to combat CO2 emissions AND with all the plastic covering every single grocery produce in the shop, the inadequate recycling sorting bins with a lot on the list for residual waste and the cardboard single use cutlery in the university cafeteria. I had to carefully carve a chicken leg like a prim and proper person in front of my new colleagues with a cardboard knife that almost decomposed before I could get all the meat off the bone during lunch today, so I am going to rant.

Planned obsolescence – because exceeding expectations would be too good.

The idea of planned obsolescence is to deliberately introduce a flaw into the design of a product that will cause a fatal failure after a certain period of use, which can then be coupled with limited production and availability of spare parts to achieve the ultimate amount of waste, so that the product will need to be replaced, rather than repaired. I would imagine that it was inspired by nature, since it’s a bit like a body, which breaks down through ageing to make room for the next generation of offspring carrying superior genes to allow evolution to do its thing. Unfortunately, this particular design idea brings a lot of profit for the manufacturers of such products, so it has spread into every aspect of our lives.

Back in the day when they had limited resources, every product had to last, because it was not easy to replace it and people wouldn’t buy it if it was badly made. Once we figured out how to mass produce on the cheap, quality standards dropped and consumers were faced with a choice of buying a cheaper, less durable or a more expensive, built to last version of the same product. Apparently it turned out that most people would buy the cheaper version and replace it more often, rather than save up for the expensive quality one, because the cheaper one was just good enough. So how do you convince them to pay for the better quality and build a reputation as reliable manufacturer, but still rack in the profits from people buying a new product more often than would actually be needed in order to compete with the mass produced lesser version? Enter planned obsolescence, stage right.

As mechanical engineers we are taught to design everything to be as efficient as possible for the first 3-5 years of our studies. We have entire university courses dedicated to the improvement and prediction of component lifetimes, because every product needs to be better, faster, stronger, flashier and absolutely improved in every way to cut it among the competition. In fact, the concept of warranty was originally invented as a seal of excellence for companies that made quality products and could guarantee that all of their products will function at least for the predicted lifetime. Well, someone somewhere figured out how to pervert that into today’s planned obsolescence for profit and now the warranty is seen only as the finish line, after which the athlete should collapse from fatigue as soon as possible.

I honestly cannot imagine any engineer being happy with the idea of introducing a strategic flaw into the design of their product other than as a particular design challenge, because it goes against everything we believe in. Unfortunately, everyone is now doing it, and in a very sneaky way too. I don’t want to name names, because you can easily do a quick Internet search to find all sorts of company planned obsolescence schemes, but everything from fridges, washing machines and vacuum cleaners, to expensive sports cars, agriculture and building machinery etc. is now rigged to fail before it should. It may sound like a conspiracy theory, but it is a legit manufacturing strategy, because we are out there actively researching new, better, more durable materials and designs for every single application imaginable, but our washing machines still keep failing faster than the scrappy misaligned, thoroughly rusted ones from the 90s. While you cannot exactly sell a faulty product, quite often all the parts in a complex system will be made up to the highest standards, but costs will be deliberately cut by using a cheaper minor component that will fail faster than all the others, causing the entire system to require expensive repairs or a full replacement. And don’t tell me that they don’t know that, because every single system failure is always analysed into oblivion to determine all the possible root causes and investment risks associated with new product development, so believe me that it shows up on the statistics. The predicted lifetime always has to meet the customer’s expectations, but there is no profit in exceeding them.

Disposable items – the other end of the profit stick.

The next logical step from designing a low quality product that just has to be good enough, but doesn’t need to last, is to design a product that doesn’t last at all, also known as single use, disposable items. That is the opposite end of the planned obsolescence profit stick. While planned obsolescence is a useful concept for high end, complex and expensive products, single use items are geared towards convenience and our inherent laziness because of the evolutionary need to conserve energy and not bother, if we don’t need to. Both ends of the profit stick result in a lot of unnecessary waste, industrial pollution and increased energy and resource use due to manufacturing, transport and distribution of such products, so here we are.

The truly devilish scheme though, is that they have now somehow managed to introduce a sort of planned obsolescence into single use products too, all while convincing us that they are more sustainable than the previous ones. Now, I am not saying that someone is actively researching how to make paper straws that decompose right before you manage to finish your fizzy drink, because that would be the evillest thing I can imagine, but think about it. Cardboard cutlery and paper straws have easily replaced their plastic predecessors even though they perform worse by all accounts and are more expensive overall. These products have practically zero lifetime, because they often fail while you are still using them, which is due to total negligence and no quality requirements during the development phase, which might as well be a form of planned obsolescence. We are paying to use a product that will need to be replaced almost before you stop using it, instead of washing and reusing a regular set of metal cutlery.

I am aware that the cardboard cutlery is a very specific, petty and banal example, but a lot of the so called sustainable alternatives are as of yet poorly designed, do not have a reasonable lifetime and are severely greenwashed so that they can be sold at all. In fact, the fashion industry, which is another perfect example of planned obsolescence mentality in action, because even quality clothes that last for years are inherently designed to become obsolete once the fashion changes, has found a way to market low quality, supposedly recycled cotton or synthetic clothes as sustainable. If a product is bad and easily fails, it cannot be sustainable by definition.

So how do we juggle between investing into a high quality product that is rigged to fail and buying a low quality product that we know cannot last and will become trash too soon, preferably without going bankrupt? Without systemic action, we can’t. However, if you are aware of the problem, you can demand a solution, and we can force the relevant institutions to introduce the required legislation. The European “Right to repair” initiative is a great start, which is a movement that would force manufacturers to not only enable repairs during the warranty period, but would also require them to make spare parts for older models available and facilitate repairs for a certain time period even if the product was discontinued. It is a step closer towards a circular, more sustainable economy and the core principles of reduce, reuse, repair and recycle.

As always, we desperately need systemic action.

While it all sounds great, it has been in the works for too long and is coming in too slowly. In the past 2 years I have been on a roller coaster of disillusionment and wild hopes for a greener future. On the one hand, we have generated an unimaginable amount of trash in the name of combating the coronavirus epidemic and taken a step back towards single use items and more energy consumption in our collective behaviour, while on the other we have seen a strong push towards a new normal and a more sustainable economic recovery, which could potentially signify the mindset shift we so desperately need. We have seen the COP26 climate conference, a major world event where country leaders came together and promised us decisive climate action, all while completely ignoring that we have failed to fulfil a single goal outlined in the Paris Agreement that would keep the world from heating up too much. In fact, some countries have even backed out of the Paris Agreement in the past couple of years or hadn’t signed it in the first place, as if we weren’t all living on the same planet. Here in Europe we then got the Green New Deal and are nearing the culmination of all those fancy Horizon2020 funded projects, but have yet to see a notable sustainability impact of any of it. Most recently, we have also pledged to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels imports from Russia, which we will do by building more terminals for overseas imports instead of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels altogether, of course. All much ado about nothing, as Shakespeare would say.

So, the way I see it, we have a choice. We’ve gotten so good at implementing the concept of planned obsolescence in every aspect of our lives, that we can take it to its logical conclusion and plan ourselves and our advanced civilization into obsolescence too. We can continue to ignore the problem and live beyond our means, calculate the expected lifetime of life as we know it and go out with a bang, letting the future generations fight it out with sticks and stones in a postapocalyptic hellscape, or we can get rid of planned obsolescence altogether and starting making things to last again. The Earth will survive whether we are on it or not and nature has rigged us all to fail eventually, because species go extinct all the time, so why should we be any different? We do need to act faster though, because if we keep planning, the choice will be made for us.

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9 thoughts on “Are we going to plan ourselves into obsolescence?

      1. And that is exactly my point. Most normal cafeterias have regular metal cutlery, but here they have this, which is the opposite of sustainable no matter what it’s made of

  1. Cardboard cutlery is certainly a ridiculous idea, but it might eventually reduce domestic homicides, I suppose. The climate crisis really is overwhelming because I think human greed is stronger than any altruism about future generations. I hate being pessimistic, but it feels more like I’m just being realistic.

    1. I agree with you, it is very hard to be optimistic about it in that sense. Cardboard cutlery is supposed to just be a replacement for single use plastic cutlery, but I don’t understand the logic of single use at all, specially in a cafeteria, not for take away… And I think this convenience factor can be chalked up to greed as well.

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