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Planned Obsolescence: How Brands Make You Buy More


Planned or dynamic obsolescence is a strategy of ensuring that a given product will be rendered useless within a known timeframe, therefore manipulating customers’ buying behaviour by driving them to seek replacements in the future, thus stimulating demand. This concept was initially conceived to boost capitalism, propelling consumers to spend money; money that would have otherwise remained unused in the economy. In 1960, Brooks Stevens, an American industrial designer, presented a definition that perfectly encapsulates the core idea of planned obsolescence: "Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary." In the present day, this phrase holds as much truth as it did in the past. Probably the most interesting evolution of the idea of planned obsolescence is that the very phrase itself has become almost archaic, yet holds more prominence than ever before. The term has evolved into the more overt "product life cycle." This shift indicates its acceptance as a common practice; openly acknowledged but rarely discussed due to its dual nature, simultaneously advantageous and detrimental. This makes it a fascinating topic for exploration.


In the early 1900s, the notion of products having a designated lifespan due to mechanical interference began to gain attention. This period coincided with a transformative era in capitalism, thus reshaping both consumer and corporate mindsets. The 1920s witnessed a "decade of unprecedented affluence," granting consumers disposable income to spend not just out of necessity but also for pleasure. Recognizing this shift, General Motors pioneered a marketing strategy in 1923, emphasising the visual appeal of cars to entice customers into buying new ones for aesthetic enhancements rather than technological necessity This revolutionary approach transformed consumer attitudes, leading to non-essential purchases purely for the sake of style and social status. In 1924, influential electrical companies, including Philips, Osram, and General Electric, formed the 'Phoebus cartel' in Geneva. Their objective was to control light bulb production by engineering bulbs with a lifespan limited to 1000 hours, compared to some lasting up to 2500 hours. Phoebus succeeded in tackling competition for about two decades.

However, they were later faced with accusations of hindering technological advancements for longer-lasting bulbs. Today, planned obsolescence takes various forms, ranging from subtle to overt. Manufacturers employ various tactics such as contrived costly repairs, introducing superior replacement models, intentionally designing products to cease proper function over time, designing products to sell complementary goods, dropping support for old software, and making irreplaceable or non-repairable parts and aesthetic upgrades to encourage consumers to open their wallets.

Obsolescence in Fashion:

Though formally discussed in the early 1900s, planned obsolescence has roots dating back to 1690. Nicolas Barbon, as noted in his Discourse on Trade, observed this concept in the fashion industry: "Fashion or the alteration of dress is a great promoter of trade because it occasions the expense of clothes; it makes a circulation and gives value, by turning to all sorts of commodities, keeping the great body of trade in motion.” Stylistic obsolescence occurs when a product becomes less fashionable and undesirable due to shifting trends. The product is often functional, and may work in every way, other than aesthetically. Influenced by such trends, consumers often prioritise design over functionality, leading to the purchase of stylish items rather than those that are passé. This concept of stylistic obsolescence has extended to various product categories, including interior decor, automobiles, book covers, household appliances, etc. The rapid turnover of physical design has become a standard part of the production-consumption cycle, shaping consumer behaviour in numerous industries. Planned obsolescence is prevalent in the fashion industry, and one prime example is the practice of fast fashion. Fast fashion retailers like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 are known for their rapid turnover of clothing collections, encouraging consumers to buy more frequently. While fast fashion offers affordability and enables consumers to stay on top of the latest trends, it fosters overconsumption and adds to environmental challenges. Clothing discarded after just a few uses frequently finds its way into landfills, exacerbating the already pressing issue of textile waste. y pressing issue of textile waste.

Obsolescence in Tech:

In the swiftly changing realm of technology, obsolescence is an omnipresent phenomenon. It signifies the inevitable process wherein technological gadgets, software, and systems lose their relevance or become outdated due to ongoing advancements in the field. This continuous advancement compels both consumers and businesses to routinely upgrade their devices and software to maintain competitiveness and enjoy the latest features and capabilities. Obsolescence can stem from various factors, including hardware constraints, software compatibility challenges, or the discontinuation of support for older products by manufacturers. A common practice among mobile phone companies is the annual launch or update of new models. After a company has established a loyal customer base, it can strategically influence purchasing behaviour, stimulating a desire for the latest products while convincing customers of their superior quality compared to competitors. Apple excels in this aspect, employing clever advertising, marketing, and a design team that consistently crafting iPhones considered fashion essentials. Apple has nurtured a dedicated follower base that passionately supports it. Typically, new iPhone releases feature few incremental changes and style updates, just enough to entice owners of the previous model to desire the newest version. One well-documented issue with Apple involves non-removable batteries, potentially leading to additional expenses. Additionally, Apple has been known to introduce software updates that some perceive as a tactic to encourage new phone purchases by potentially slowing down older iPhone models. Although Apple has maintained that these updates aim to enhance performance and prolong battery life, they have faced criticism for the lack of transparency in addressing the impact of these updates on the user experiences with the older models.


In a world where the resources for product generation and waste management are finite, planned obsolescence fails to align adequately with environmental considerations and social responsibilities. What we witness today is not merely a consequence of obsolescence but also a reflection of our consumption culture evident as in the case of landfills globally, particularly in the developing world. The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) predicts that the volume of electrical and electronic waste will escalate to 74 million tonnes annually by 2030. The adverse social impacts of producing these goods are substantial, resulting in an excess of lead, mercury, and toxic gases that pose significant environmental harm and health risks. Many of these products necessitate highly specific metals and materials, often extracted through mining, an inherently environmentally destructive process. Consequently, planned obsolescence has led to a rise in resource consumption, resulting in a sharp increase in pollution as well as a massive waste disposal crisis.


While some instances of planned obsolescence indeed raise valid concerns, It would be overly simplistic to outrightly label the practice as unethical. From a macroeconomic standpoint, the rapid turnover of goods not only fuels economic growth but also generates numerous job opportunities. Additionally, the continuous introduction of new products to attract customers tends to foster innovation and enhance product quality, thus society also benefits from ongoing investment in R&D. As a result of this complex cycle, people across the wealthy west, the far east and the developing world, now enjoy affordable access to a wide range of commodities supplied by the industrial sector. Many of us now enjoy conveniences that were unimaginable a century ago. However, the drawbacks are apparent, because tonnes of waste are produced and resources are overexploited. This not only affects the environment but also harnesses a feeling of insecurity and insufficiency in the minds of the consumer, stemming from the inability to possess the latest models. Environmental concerns have played a crucial role in reshaping our understanding of how planned obsolescence can take the form of a more ethical business approach. The hypothesis is that by prioritising environmentally friendly and sustainable product designs, we can embrace obsolescence as a positive force, influencing the economy and advancing technology for the better, all without causing harm to the environment.

Sukriti Saxena
Writing Mentorship Programme 2023


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