What is planned obsolescence, and what can you do about it?

What is planned obsolescence, and what can you do about it?

Posted By Jasmine Vorley

Whether you're new to the buy-for-life movement, or have been following the BuyMeOnce journey for a couple of years, you may have come across the term 'planned obsolescence'. It’s a concept we reference often, so we thought we'd break it down in a little more detail. 

What exactly is it?

Put simply, planned obsolescence is when products are designed to break (i.e. become obsolete), so that you buy them more often.

This can take many forms. It can be in a software update that inexplicably slows your device. It can also be in a shoddy part in your appliance that, once broken, sends the whole unit to landfill. It can even be in the instantly-bobbly material of a cheap fast fashion garment. It's sometimes called premature or built-in obsolescence, but they all essentially mean the same thing.

The idea of planned obsolescence was first conceived in 1928 by marketing pioneer Justus George Frederick. According to this article by the Guardian: 

“[Frederick] stated that it was necessary to induce people to buy an ever-increasing variety of things, not in order to use them, but to activate commerce and discard them after a short period of time."

 

Today this concept has been legitimised and is built heavily into manufacturing and marketing cycles. Planned obsolescence drives profitability, and has been largely accepted by the business world and consumers alike.

Our founder Tara Button wrote the book on living a life less throwaway - sign up to the buy-for-life movement and we'll send you the chapter on planned obsolescence, for free!

 

Notable examples

 

Planned Obsolescence Phoebus Cartel

 

One of the most famous examples of planned obsolescence is the light bulb. In 1924, light bulbs were improving in quality; some were lasting up to 2,500 hours. Concerned for their profits, a group of major light bulb manufacturers formed the Phoebus Cartel, which colluded to reduce the average light bulb lifespan to 1025 hours. How did they get away with it? Many of the changes were sold to consumers as efficiencies and improvements in brightness. 

A more recent example is Apple's slowing down of older iPhone models using compulsory software updates. In France, where planned obsolescence is illegal, Apple were slapped with a 24 million euro fine for "deceptive commercial practice[s] by omission".

 

What is psychological obsolescence?

Whereas planned obsolescence involves giving products an artificial end-date or reduced lifespan, psychological obsolescence makes consumers dissatisfied with products that still work perfectly well.

This usually takes the form of releasing a fresh new model, that makes the product we have seem old and inadequate in comparison. This prompts us to purchase the new model, even if the old one hasn't yet reached the end of its useful life. One of the big proponents of psychological obsolescence is fast fashion, which drives faster and more frequent trend cycles, whilst simultaneously driving the price of clothing down. 

  

What can be done about planned obsolescence?

When it comes to fighting planned obsolescence, our greatest power lies in the everyday purchasing choices we make. We can and should campaign for laws that empower consumers and combat waste, such as the Right to Repair. However, if buyers keep demanding cheap goods whilst accepting their short lifespans, we won't see change any time soon.

We want consumers to think about product longevity when they choose what to buy. Good value doesn't mean finding the most low-cost option, and conversely, a high price doesn't always denote quality! Our aim is to empower consumers to buy less, and buy better.

Products with long lifespans often work out cheaper, stay out of landfill and provide a better experience. When we buy for life, we are investing in an item that could even outlive us! 

 

Finex skillet

USA-made Finex skillets are guaranteed for life. That’s not just 100 uses, or 1000 uses - but the last one you will ever have to buy. 

 

What should you look for when buying long-lasting products?

Whilst some brands have a solid reputation for making high-quality items, often it's not obvious whether a product will stand the test of time.

It always pays to do a little research into what you're buying. What materials is it made from? Which parts could break? Is this a timeless design you'll love forever?

A great indicator of longevity can be a fixed-period or lifetime warranty. This indicates that the manufacturer has confidence in their product and stands by their quality promise. For some items, like shoes and clothing, guarantees are very rare - but some companies will repair or refurbish your item for a fair fee, sometimes even for free! 

Another interesting consideration is to look for products with modular parts. Modular designs acknowledge that there are some parts of the product that are likely to wear out, which you can easily change up instead of buying a whole new unit. 

You can read more about our own in-depth research process here.

 

Wishbone bike

These kids' bikes by Wishbone have a modular build, so they can be adjusted and changed as a child grows. This combined with easy repairs keeps them in use for longer.

 

What is BuyMeOnce’s role?

BuyMeOnce research and sell the longest lasting products in the world. We're tackling planned obsolescence by championing manufacturers who buck the trend, and go the extra mile in quality.

By carrying out thorough, independent research into product longevity, we want to facilitate smart shopping choices for the long term. We’re demanding well-made products, more watertight guarantees and responsible manufacturing. Our aim is to be the trusted destination for finding fantastically reliable items. 

We know people are sick of badly-made stuff. That’s why we exist, and we want you to know you can expect better.

 

Love things that last. 

 

Join the our movement. 

Shop our Bestsellers range here.

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