What Is Planned Obsolescence? How Brands Keep You Buying


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How often do you throw away a product to upgrade to a newer model even when the older one worked just fine? How often do you have to buy a new appliance just because of minor damage to the current one? Probably more often than you’d like.

This is not a coincidence. Brands design their products to have a limited lifespan to try and trick you into buying newer products that you may not necessarily need. They do so by using a strategy called planned obsolescence.

What Is Planned Obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence is a tactic whereby businesses sell products or services with an artificial expiry date. They do this by deliberately making products easily perishable or using clever marketing to make them feel outdated. This helps brands boost sales and create regular customers.

The Origin of Planned Obsolescence

The planned obsolescence as a business tactic was first implemented by General Motors CEO Alfred P. Sloan in the 1920s to compete with his rival Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company.

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Sloan’s strategy worked, and customers began upgrading to brand-new models to follow current trends. Eventually, General Motors made massive sales, outgrowing Ford.

In another example, in 1925, the world’s biggest light bulb companies gathered for a classified meeting in Geneva and formed the Phoebus Cartel. The goal was to cut and standardize the lifespan of incandescent light bulbs to create a shared monopoly.

The same engineers who were first tasked to extend the lifespan of bulbs were later instructed to reduce it. To their success, the plan worked, and sales rose. Even though the Phoebus cartel ceased its operations before World War II, its practices still linger to this day, adopted by many businesses.

The Truth About Planned Obsolescence

Today, planned obsolescence has evolved much further and is embedded in core business strategies to ensure recurring sales and business scalability. These are some of the tactics brands use to keep you swiping your cards.

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1. Designing Products to Sell Complementary Goods

Brands cut the prices of products that need high maintenance or complementary goods to function. The low price of an item motivates you to make an impulse purchase. You are then sold complementary goods repeatedly for recurring sales. Let’s take printers, for example.

They are designed to stop working when the ink cartridges have reached a certain threshold, even if it is not empty. The printer is engineered with a chip that commands the printer to alert you even if only one of the colors is below the set limit. Hence, urging you to get a new cartridge.

2. Dropping Support for Old Software

Tech giants consistently drop new operating system updates that are incompatible with older devices—forcing developers to roll out new updates and drop support for older versions. Ultimately, this forces you to upgrade to a new device with the latest specs to keep using their services.

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Apple is notorious for this. iPhone users have repeatedly reported that software updates received by older devices have affected battery life, eventually causing an abrupt shutdown. In 2016, Apple was sued and ordered to pay a $27 million fine, a negligible fraction of its annual sales.

Related: Italian Consumers Are Seeking Compensation Over Planned iPhone Obsolescence

3. Pushing Perceived Obsolescence

“Perceived obsolescence” means making customers feel that the products they own are no longer in touch with their current needs and pushing them to buy new models. In other words, it’s deceiving the customers about their own needs through inventive marketing techniques that focus on style rather than functionality.

Nokia flip phones are back and bolder than ever before.

Brands release new cars, phones, gear, and outfits consistently, marketing them as “remarkably superior” and making the previous ones seem obsolete. Often, they are instead just restyled versions with minor improvements. These products are marketed as status symbols, and not owning the latest model hurts reputation.

4. Making Irreplaceable and Non-Repairable Parts

Manufacturers deliberately make products overly expensive and unnecessarily hard to repair, even for minor defects. This strategy aims to convince you to “just get a new one” instead of spending on repairing your old product. This tactic forces you to consider skipping the repair cost since it’s almost as much as the cost of a new product.

For instance, when your smartphone battery gets degraded, the practical solution would be to replace it. Today, it is the norm for a smartphone to have an irreplaceable battery. Obsolescence of just one part renders the entire device useless. Apple even went a step ahead and incorporated pentalobe screws that can’t be removed using the standard tools.

Related: Tech Companies Are Fighting to Kill “Right to Repair” Bills in the US

How to Tackle Planned Obsolescence

It is bad enough that we produce 50+ million metric tons of e-waste each year. What’s worse is that most of this “waste” can easily be reused.

But marketing efforts from brands worldwide promote a subliminal culture of impulse buying that accelerates this waste production. As a result, it is now the norm to replace a product instead of repairing it.

Here are some things you can do to combat planned obsolescence and reduce e-waste:

  1. Resist the urge to impulse buy brand new products
  2. Buy second-hand or refurbished products
  3. Opt for products that have replaceable parts
  4. Buy products out of necessity instead of a perceived repute
  5. Buy from companies that advocate and follow sustainability
  6. Choose brands that are transparent about their repair policies
  7. Sell or donate your old products instead of throwing them away

The best way to advance your right to repair is by voting with your wallet. In other words, avoiding easily depreciable products and buying repairable products from brands that follow strong ethical practices and prioritize sustainability. This also pushes governments to impose new laws and restrictions that protect customers.

Related: France’s Right to Repair Law Makes Apple Display Product Repairability Rating

Inspire Transparency in Tech, Push the Right to Repair

Business decisions made without considering the customer’s financial well-being only benefit the company and disregard ethical principles.

The solution to this is making business operations more transparent. Technological progress without prioritizing sustainability is just postponing a disaster and making it worse instead of tackling it head-on. As a customer, it is your right to ask for every detail about what you are buying, no matter if it’s a product or a promise.

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