Putting an expiry date on planned obsolescence

In 1924, the automobile industry reached a turning point. General Motors introduced planned obsolescence—a process that renews car models every year and entices car owners into buying replacement models.

It was impossible for Henry Ford to keep pace with the cost of yearly restyling. So in 1931, GM exceeded Ford’s sales and became the dominant company in the industry for the next 50 years.

Planned obsolescence was considered the solution to America’s economic chaos in the midst of the Great Depression. People thought if government imposed legal obsolescence on consumer articles, consumption would be stimulated and the economy would recover.

Today, this process has been adopted by almost every tech company. It has led to the manufacturing of less-than-sustainable models and increased consumerism. Technology is growing fast. Cars, computers, cellphones and appliances are now designed to last between two to three years—or less.

Photo credit: wallstreetsurvivor.com

According to Amirkanoosh Kiani, mechanical engineering professor and researcher at the University of New Brunswick, the durability of appliances and technologies are purposefully chosen by companies’ designers.

“Companies need to compete. Sometimes they introduce new models faster because of this need to be ahead of the game. If the company designs something that never expires, the market becomes saturated,” he said.

Meanwhile, the time between the production of new models is being reduced. Even toys are now built to be broken.

“It’s the trend. Americans replace phones every two years approximately. Ten years ago it was every five or six years,” he said.

Kiani points out that managing the life-cycle of technologies can lead to advantages and disadvantages for businesses. “When the customers realize the manufacturers do it on purpose,” said Kiani. “They switch to companies that create things with more durability. Innovation can be good but it can also cause customers to lose trust in these companies.”

The main disadvantage of planned obsolescence has to do with its environmental impacts, said Janice Harvey, a professor in the environment and society program at St. Thomas University.

“This is a global system, not a localized issue. The problem with planned obsolescence is as you produce more goods, you are using more raw materials.”

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She explains the alternative to planned obsolescence is increased durability. But this goes against the economic logic of growth and profit.

In some cases, technologies are made using less expensive materials that break down sooner so they can be more affordable.

“It might be cheaper at the moment, but you will have to change them in less than year’s time,” said Kiani.
Another result of planned obsolescence is mass extinction.

“We are now in what scientists call the sixth mass extinction. Species are going extinct at 100 to 1,000 times the natural rate,” said Harvey. This is a direct result of habitat destruction and degradation, which are caused by the
extraction of raw materials and energy used for the production system.

“We are heading for the cliff edge on this one,” she said.

Shawn Goff is student at STU and president of UNB’s eSport Society. He said this business model makes it difficult for students who are often forced to upgrade their devices with little to no notice. With student loans, finding the financing can be difficult.

“Not knowing is the worst part,” he said. “You just need to take care of what you have and hope you don’t have a tech-pocalypse.”

In 2015, Europe legislated a new regulation about planned obsolescence; every company is required to disclose information to buyers stating how much time appliances will last. This at least gives buyer the information they need to decide if the product they will buy is worth it.

According to Kiani, appliances should have a minimum of two years guarantee as of 2016.

“I think companies should disclose this information,” said Goff. “Especially what these phones are made of, and how capable they are of being repaired. A lot of phones now are near impossible to take apart and repair. And that’s terrible.”