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Planned Obsolescence

Updated on July 22, 2015

The Secret is out

For many years big business corporations have tried unsuccessfully to keep secret a policy they have to build in a lifespan into their products. Until recently companies did not see that it was in their interest to build products that last forever. If they did sell a product that never wore out or broke they would quickly run out of customers. This was the bankrupt values that business secretly harbored while at the same time espousing the ‘value’, ‘excellence’ and other benefits of their products.

Nowadays few people are fooled and they are tired of in-built or planned obsolescence. Products that are designed with a limited lifespan come under a number of categories.

Types of in built obsolescence

Technical / Functional Obsolescence

This is when a lifespan is designed into a product. Parts are made to specifications that are designed to break or stop working after a certain period of time. To compliment this tactic companies make new parts prohibitively expensive to discourage people from trying to replace parts. Finally, a company will simply stop making new parts to make sure consumers buy another product.

Similarly there is planned functional obsolescence where a company promotes a certain product (for example video tape) while at the same time developing new replacement technology (such as DVDs) that offer better quality and will force people to switch over to a new product and possibly a new medium at great expense.

Systemic Obsolescence

This is a new type of planned obsolescence where a product is designed with limited compatibility in mind. This is frequently the case with computer software. You buy a software program that is compatible with Windows XP and then after a few years you get Windows Vista and surprise, surprise that software you bought doesn’t work on the new OS. Hardware developers are often reluctant to make their new products ‘backwards compatible’ for this lucrative reason. Similarly if a company pulls the plug on service support and updates software becomes defunct.

Style Obsolescence

This is a clever type of planned obsolescence. If a product is marketed as very fashionable and ‘now’ you are guaranteed that in a few months it will be very unfashionable and ‘yesterday’. Good examples of deliberate fads created by marketers include Cabbage Patch Kids, Ninja Turtles and Pet Rocks.

Style obsolescence is obviously the mainstay of the fashion industry. It is an industry that blatantly introduces new fashions to make their previous products obsolete and ‘uncool’. No industry has been as successful as fashion in exploiting planned obsolescence for big money gains. They have refined the system by something called ‘riding the fashion cycle’. This is when a new style is first pitched to the top income brackets and then as it is falling out of fashion in these socio-economic groups it is pushed at the next socio-economic group down and so on. Thus the ethos of planned obsolescence is maintained but a product’s overall fashion life span is increased to maximize profits.

Notification Obsolescence

This is planned obsolescence where you are told that the product needs changing or replacing such as water filters that warn you that they need changing. Most immoral are inkjet printers which use proprietary smart chips in their printer cartridges to stop you using the cartridge anymore despite their still being ink left in the cartridge.

What is the answer?

Planned obsolescence leads to a waste of resources, pollution and the unnecessary expenditure of money. There is very little good that can be said for it. Of course innovation can make previous products obsolete but the innovation must be real and not superficial.

The only answer is to choose your products carefully and avoid companies with a bad track record. Sometimes there is a way round notification obsolescence. You can refill ink cartridges many times with a cheap refill kit. You can re-set the integrated circuit of lithium batteries to allow you to recharge them more. Research can often reveal ways to by-pass the tactics of in-built obsolescence.

Another tactic is upcycling. This is a form of recycling where the product is used to make something of greater worth.

And finally there is suing. In the UK planned obsolescence in a product is a breach of consumer rights. A good example of this is the Apple Click Wheel on its iPod which was found to fail just outside of its warranty period. In 2006 a consumer took a shop to court over a click wheel failure. The case was settled out of court. Suing brings bad publicity to companies and affects their market share. Apple has had a series of allegations and cases against it. They have a hard line about not giving refunds outside of warranty periods. It is hoped that the bad publicity will make people realize that Apple doesn’t make better products. Consumers have been duped by placement ads etc. for too long.

It is no surprise that more people are just simply turning their backs on morally bankrupt corporations and opting to illegally download software, movies and music. Companies such as Apple don’t care about the consumer, why should the consumer care about their bottom line?

Vance Packard in the The Waste Makers describes planned obsolescence as "the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals."


Credit must be given to Wikipedia for providing me with much useful information for this article.


Wikipedia Entry on Planned Obsolescence

Wikipedia Entry on Upcycling

Guardian Article about the Apple 'Click Wheel'


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