Planned Obsolescence (or Planned Obsolesence, but that’s not how you’re supposed to spell it):
My future husband’s microwave was already rusty inside by the time I moved in with him in late 2010. One day in early 2011 I tried to reheat some parsnips. There was nothing special about them, they were bog standard parsnips that we had, in fact, only cooked the night before. It was a good job I had a back problem at the time, had difficulty with the (very steep, unsafe and not up to building code) stairs and was effectively stuck on the ground floor, and that the kitchen was an easy place to be. I watched my food. I am very glad that I did.
At first, I thought there was steam coming from the bowl. Great, my food is cooking quickly, I thought. Then the smell of smoke gave it away. Something was burning. I opened the microwave and saw that the smoke was actually coming from the top of the microwave itself, not the food! I called for help, unplugged it and got the back door open, then had to BELLOW at my future husband to get the damn thing outside and on the concrete before the whole kitchen went up, because he was so surprised that he was just staring at it in disbelief. Between us we got it thrown out where it burned itself out, and was taken to the recycling centre that same weekend because I refuse to live in a house with discarded appliances strewn in the back yard, even a miserable yard like the one in that house.
How had this happened? My future husband grilled me over what I had put in the microwave to cause this. It was just a plastic bowl with some reheatable boiled parsnip. Did I put water in? Yes. And besides, the bowl wasn’t the thing on fire.
We didn’t think we could function effectively without a microwave, given our propensity at the time for microwave rice, so we went to the shop and looked at new ones.
The first thing that struck me was the price. They were the same price in 2011 as they had been in 2002 and 2004, the last two times I’d accompanied anyone to buy microwaves. Not only that, but the wattage was now lower.
I found this interesting. You could buy a low end microwave for £40 in 2002 and 2011. But the manufacturers had redefined the term low-end. In 2002, low-end £40 microwaves were 800 watts. In 2011, they were 700 watts. An 800 watt microwave cost at least £60 in 2011.
You could say that this was inflation. I disagree.
The microwave’s lifespan is almost exactly the same each time. The new one we bought is now not heating things as effectively as before, and the way it’s heating them causes them to need re-heating sooner than before because they are losing that heat energy too quickly. It is now common for me (if I need to re-heat a drink which is usually once or twice a week) to have to re-heat the same hot tea three or four times to finish it, where it used to take one re-heat.
We rarely eat ready meals. Last night, I bought what was probably the first ready meal we’d had in the house in about twelve months. The microwave heating instructions for the meals were aimed at 700 watt microwaves, ours is 800 watt. Following the instructions for both ready meals did not cook them. I had to put them in for an extra minute and a half. The microwave has definitely lost heating output.
I predict that our microwave will not last to the end of this year. This is a microwave that we bought in 2011. I did a quick search of Argos to see how much a new microwave would cost. A 700 watt microwave is now £34.99. An 800 watt microwave is £52.99.
I think I have been the victim of Planned Obsolescence.
Planned obsolescence is the underpinning idea that explains exactly what you’ve suspected for years – that certain products are specifically designed to fail after a given period of time. There is evidence that this has been going on since 1920, around the world. Basically, companies realised that they were not going to make any money from long lasting products with a “lifetime guarantee” because they can only sell to each customer once. If they make a product that’s great but breaks after a few years, they can sell to that customer again and again.
Here are some common examples that had made me wonder about whether products were designed to fail long before I found out this really was a design feature:
1. Printer cartridges. I got my own printer for my second year of university, and I used to be able to use the ink until it started fading on the page, printing thinner and thinner. Then, around about three years ago, after a mysterious printer software update, the printer wouldn’t do faded prints until the ink ran out. After another update, it stopped letting me substitute colour for black (it used to be able to make “composite black.” Around the same time, it refused to print something in black ink because the cyan ink was too low. Despite the fact that it didn’t need cyan to print black, and I even played around with settings for over an hour telling it on different screens to print in black ink only. That’s right, I had to spend £20 on a new 4-colour set (because they don’t come separately) because the cyan had run out while I tried to print something in black. That 4-colour set is always sold separately to black ink, by the way. Once the printer stopped being able to print 100% perfectly by its own arbitrary standard, it refused to print at all.
The second time it did it, it was out of yellow and I was trying to print a serious black ink letter to someone important. Then, immediately after being recharged with 4 new colours (another £20), it refused to print at all. I’d had it 4 1/2 years. I capitulated and bought a new printer which promised cheaper ink and better efficiency.
Cars. Isn’t it interesting how cars from particular decades are built to fail in different ways? For example, the cars from the 1990s were built to rust, but cars from about 2002 onwards were built to not rust. I bought my car last year that was 10 years old, and there was no rust underneath. It’s now 11 and still only has speckles. My previous car had been 6 when I bought it, and it had no rust either. When I sold that, it was 8 and still no rust whatsoever, the underside was bright silver. But my first car had died of rust about 18 months after I got it, aged 13. It was only 5 years older than my current car. Second hand cars from the 1980s were so bad that I remember my mum being annoyed that she had to pay £500 in 1993 for a car that was 5 years old and therefore past it’s use by date. £500 wasn’t as valuable in 1993 as people like to think – can you imagine buying a 5 year old car for £500 – or even £1000 – today and thinking it was anything other than nearly-new? Different things fail on cars in different decades as well – the 1980s was engine failure and electricals, the 1990s was rust and electricals, the 2000s was engine failure again (and electricals, maybe they’re easier to design to fail). Easily dentable bodywork was a big one for a while, and a few years ago every second car was dented somewhere, but it became clear that people would just drive around in dented cars rather than buy a new one and mysteriously they don’t do that any more. Even if you do get a car that’s not doomed to fail within a decade, chances are the manufacturer will discontinue the spares for it soon. It’s all a peculiar pattern that can only be explained by Planned Obsolescence.
Optical drives. The great thing about CDs, the thing that made CD-sized discs really take off, was that you could write the data to them and it would last, even if you put it in a magnetic field, in a hot environment, a cold one or a damp one. In January, whilst clearing out my mum’s house after she died, I found a CD with all my poetry on from when I was 16. That CD had been dumped in a mouldy attic with a leaking roof (even the steel stanchions of the house frame were thoroughly rusty, where they used to be shiny silver, due to the roof leakage) and even its paper label was wet and mouldy. I washed the CD when I got home and put it into my computer. The disc loaded first time and all my files were fully intact, openable, readable, everything exactly the same as when I saved them, twelve years earlier. That’s how good disc-based storage is – their only vulnerability is scratches, which are carelessness. The discs themselves are almost infallible.
So why is it that every pack of writeable CDs and DVDs has duff discs in it? How did they not pass quality control? It’s always a similar number as well – usually about two or three in ten, or five in twenty, will fail while you’re trying to write to them. Is it the discs that are at fault or the optical drives? I am unsure. I did suspect they just put the useless ones in boxes and sold them for two reasons – a) they make money back on the plastic they’ve used and b) they actually make more money than they would if you got 10 working discs because you have to buy more packs of discs to actually get 10 good ones. I strongly suspect the optical drives have a part to play. It’s very mysterious that DVD players, CD drives and games consoles designed to read discs tend to break every four and a half years, the same as microwaves and printers. In the past five years we have had to replace a DVD player, a games console, and a portable DVD player (we didn’t actually replace that, we just got rid). The CD player in my car doesn’t work either, so for road trips I bought a portable boom box that takes batteries – very environmentally unfriendly, but it costs over £100 to get a new radio put in whereas the boom box was £20 and takes batteries I can get in four packs from any £1 shop, and when I calculated how long it would take to recover the £100 in batteries, I realised this was actually just far cheaper.
Consumerism won this battle, but I hope that by not spending the £100 on the new CD player at the moment, I will be able to win my war on frivolous purchases. What is really insidious about the optical drives at the moment is that computers and laptops now don’t automatically come with the ability to play a DVD or Blu-Ray – even if the laptop/PC is equipped with a DVD or Blu-Ray drive! I tried to watch a DVD last year (yep, I don’t watch them very often) and found that, despite the fact that 5 different appliances all had the right shape/size disc, and said “DVD” on the disc drive, they actually couldn’t play the DVD. No. You need a DVD player to do that. The games console will only play DVD games, not DVD films. The laptop will only give you a handy tray to put your DVD down on, while you try to find a scart cable for your DVD player. Five years ago they all proudly multi-tasked and now, realising they can get more money from you, they all solo-task. If your laptop plays DVDs, how can they sell you a DVD player as well? If that hasn’t spent all your money for you, how about a portable DVD player, or an in-car one, for car rides?
This all seems like just “the way things are?” Think about these two things:
- School textbooks. They are designed to be obsolete in a few years – as are all school curricula – overtly this is to “reflect the latest changes” but how much have English or History changed in the last ten years, or maths, or anything else, insofar as it’s genuinely reflected in what thirteen year olds learn? And how many GCSE and A-level specification changes have there been in that time, necessitating new class sets of texts? Having been a teacher now for three years, I can tell you that they don’t use the same textbooks and resources that they did when I first started. Somewhere, the decision makers do this so that children learn that everything has to be recent and relevant, and that anything “old” has no value so when they grow up, they buy everything new.When I was at school, we had French textbooks with pictures of kids with monobrows and shell suits, ten years after both went out of style. I enjoyed seeing things that reminded me of what the world had looked like when I was very small. I grew a sense of nostalgia. We were the very final year group to use those text books, and a new French curriculum was brought in for the children who were a year younger than me, so they were promptly detached from that sense of the past or of connection. There were even promotional posters for the new text books that made people in my class feel like we were getting an inferior French education by using the older texts – parents complained. The joke’s on them – I got an A in GCSE French and think those text books were fantastique. This “new is always better” fallacy is awful though – it trains children to value nothing, and to believe that people from the past were intellectually inferior (unless they’re a Historical Figure). It also makes people think that education is “better” today than it used to be – which is odd because if that’s the case, why are people who had that “inferior” education now the same people designing these textbooks?? If their education was inadequate, why are they qualified to dictate what kids should learn? Of the 62 million adults of various ages living in the UK today (and educated here), how many of them don’t know what the second world war was, or can’t read at all, and is it the fault of the resources, the educators, the parents, the media or the individual? Mainstream education makes children a product of their time as one of its subsidiary covert purposes. It’s very sad.
- Your grandma. If your gran was too young, ask your mom about great grandma, especially if she’s from the United States or Germany, both of whom suffered the worst in the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. If she was like my grandma, she would have said “in my day, things were built to last.” and she put her kids in terry towelling nappies and washed them in the toilet before she put them in the machine. She bought new broom handles and new brush heads, and sewed things when they ripped, and kept spare buttons.
Ultimately, the only reason anyone dismisses this as a conspiracy theory in spite of the evidence of their own eyes and wallets and numerous examples, is because of this:
“For planned obsolescence to work, the customer must feel that he/she has had value for money. Furthermore, he/she must have enough confidence in the manufacturer/company, to replace the original washing machine with the modern equivalent machine, from the same manufacturer.”
And if people believe they have had value for money, they don’t question it when the product breaks. Additionally, the companies have to be careful that this cannot be proven, so that they don’t end up the victims of lawmaking to stop them doing this or huge lawsuits. After all, if there’s no evidence, there’s no crime as far as the law is concerned.
The fact that people are unaware or don’t believe this is happening just goes to show how successful the consumerist indoctrination that takes place in schools and through the media has been. Even the headteachers and governors, and the film and television directors, are blissfully unaware of what they are doing because they’ve been taken in by it as well. After all, they’re also (influential) consumers.
The most pressing question that I can’t see an answer to isn’t “why do my things always break” (which as we have established is part of their design) but “what should I do about it?” This is what I want to try and unpick.
Repair shops are thin on the ground these days, and even if you find one, half the time they tell you things are going to cost more to repair than replace. This forced consumerism is dictating to us where our money goes.
I guess for a lot of it, the fundamental problem is that they have created a need for the item. The microwave, the TV, the DVD player, the games console. You purchase a bunch of pretty specific stuff (such as DVDs or video games, specific foods that work best in the microwave) that only that specific device can operate. Then you get used to being able to enjoy those items regularly, thinking to yourself that this is great and convenient. Then they break and you think you have to buy a new one. That’s right. You think you have to. You don’t actually have to. Can I cook without a microwave? Of course. I hardly use it for cooking since we maybe eat ready meals once a year, I only use it for shortcuts such as defrosting or re-heating leftovers. Can I re-heat my tea without a microwave? No, I can’t. But do you know what? I’m going to learn to be more diligent and drink my tea faster because for 25 years of my life, I refused point blank to re-heat tea, because it affects the taste, it’s a recent laziness I’ve acquired that was borne from a need to not waste tea and has gotten out of control.
I spoke to my husband last night about getting rid of the microwave altogether by not replacing it. The very thought upset him. His first response? To ask me how I would re-heat my tea. Then to tell me that if I didn’t want to use the microwave, I should just not use it, and leave him to it. I don’t think he really understands that’s it’s not about whether it gets used, it’s about curbing our dependence on useful but superfluous devices that we don’t need. Do you know what I worry about? If we get rid of the microwave, it’s almost guaranteed that the cooker will break.
Now lets talk about how planned obsolescence fuels consumerism. The original meaning for the term “planned obsolescence” was to create a need in consumers to buy something a little bit better, a little bit sooner than they would have done. Let’s take the qualifiers out of that and turn it into a straightforward sentence: “To buy something better, sooner.” In modern times the term planned obsolescence has grown to encompass those items that we just know are designed to fail. But due to potential lawsuits from multinational companies nobody dares say anything or prove anything.
When something breaks, you get rid of it. But like with my microwave, what if it’s just outlived it’s usefulness? What if it just doesn’t do the job you bought it for? Would you replace it then? What about before that happens? I only replace things, unless they break, when they stop doing the job I bought them for – or if that job no longer needs to be done. But do I really want to replace them? The thought process goes something like this: “X doesn’t do Y anymore. Z does Y better. Previously, I bought X to make life easier, because Z wasn’t as good. I should buy another X.”
The flawed logic is thinking that we need to replace X. Really, we should actually own a better Z and not have an X at all. For example my bathroom has a bath and a shower cubicle as two separate units. Recently the top of the shower’s electrics box started to melt. I looked into replacing the shower and it was really expensive. All along my thought was, we cannot be without a shower. I even considered the most depressing of all financial packages – the dreaded Bathroom Loan, the epitome of self-indulgence and subservience to the Consumeriarchy (just made it up, d’you like it?) unless you started off with JUST an outdoor toilet.
Luckily my husband intervened. He duct taped the hole in the top of the shower to stop water getting into the electrics. I thought he was crazy. Then I realised this was really helpful – not to fix the shower, but to give me time to think about how to fix the shower. When he took away that sense of urgency I had a chance to think, and when I thought it through, I realised we have a perfectly good bath and we can just get a cheap mixer shower and use it in the bath. In this example, the shower is X and the bath is Z. There was and is no reason for us to have a bath and a shower, except that they came with the house, and I recently found out that the electric shower is apparently increasing our electricity consumption by a whole lot. It’s just another device of mass consumption of my paltry finances.
Sense of urgency is the path to bad decision making. I try not to make decisions when they seem urgent because it’s led to some bad consequences in the past – it always feels like I’m getting good items, but they are always far more money than I would have spent if I had felt like I had the time to choose carefully. I am not usually an impulse buyer, but that sense of urgency from a car write-off, a burning microwave or a melted shower can really make me feel like I need to make a decision fast – which always leads to me throwing money at it until the problem goes away.
To sum up then, stuff’s designed to break. Spending more may or may not prolong its life. Nothing lasts forever – and nor should it – but it would be nice if things lasted as long as they could instead of as long as the manufacturers let us have them for. This most insidious form of consumerism is one that I’m not sure even the power of minimalism can fully overcome. I would go so far as to say that this is why people think they’re “too old” for particular things – one example I can offer amongst many is that someone I know in their 40s recently claimed they were “too old” to go to university and get a degree, even when I told them of three people who had been over 50 (one over 60) who were at university with me doing the same degree as me (and they all got higher marks than me). What a shame that human beings can be convinced that they, too, can become obsolete after a certain age.
The documentary exposing the Planned Obsolescence society Phoebus: http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/light-bulb-conspiracy/
An academic paper which discusses this in detail from an economics perspective (using a lot of economic terminology): http://www.murks-nein-danke.de/blog/download/An%20Economic%20Theory%20of%20Planned%20Obsolescence.pdf
These are in French but the first is a good overview (if you read French) of the lightbulb conspiracy, as well as giving examples, including a detailed explanation of how the iPhone obsolescence is being carried out (which is linked at the bottom of the first article I’ve linked to, as well as being the second link below these words) The third explains how Nylon/DuPont limit the life of stockings and tights: