“From cell phones to household appliances and clothing to automobile tires, some products we use every day could last much longer. But they don’t."
Ever wondered why on earth does every textbook need a revised edition every year? Or why don’t electrical appliances last as long as they used to? Why do major purchases, such as vehicles or large appliances, always seem to break down immediately after a manufacturer’s warranty expires?
You might have grimaced at the irony that our advanced scientific society has manufactured materials durable enough to take human beings to the moon in 1969, but you still need to buy a new water bottle every few months because that screw-on cap made of brittle plastic breaks upon slightest impact, leaving a perfectly good water bottle useless. While your mom insists that this can be explained by your sheer carelessness and inability to care for your personal stuff, the answer might actually lie in the policy of planned obsolescence.
So, what is “planned obsolescence”?
Planned obsolescence describes a strategy of deliberately ensuring that the current version of a product will become out of date or useless within a known period. It’s a purposeful and predatory move to create artificial demand by guaranteeing that consumers will seek replacements.
Various examples of this strategy include:
- Tires designed to wear out after a certain number of miles
- Clothing items made to tear and/or wear out easily.
- Smartphones are re-released with slightly upgraded specifications only a few months after a big release, with no fundamental changes to the design.
- The sneaker industry is a prime example where a single model of shoe is often produced for years, but the colour and material combination (“colorway”) is changed every few months, or different colorways are offered in different markets.
- Mobile phones and laptops often come with non-replaceable batteries so that an aging battery is trapped inside a perfectly working device, limiting its lifespan. This specific practice, which was started by Apple’s iPhone under the justification that “it made the phone body slimmer”, is now the norm in smartphone design.
In the United States, automotive design reached a turning point in 1924 when the American national automobile market began reaching saturation. To maintain unit sales, General Motors head Alfred P. Sloan Jr. suggested annual model-year design changes to convince car owners that they needed to buy a new replacement each year, an idea borrowed from the bicycle industry, though the concept is often misattributed to Sloan. Critics called his strategy “planned obsolescence”, and this is how this term was coined.
This strategy had far-reaching effects on the auto business, the field of product design, and eventually the American economy. The smaller players could not maintain the pace and expense of yearly re-styling. Henry Ford, the founder of Ford Motor Company did not like the constant stream of model-year changes because he clung to an engineer’s notions of simplicity, economies of scale, and design integrity. GM surpassed Ford’s sales in 1931 and became the dominant company in the industry thereafter.
In 1960, cultural critic Vance Packard published The Waste Makers, promoted as an exposé of “the systematic attempt of business to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, permanently discontented individuals”. The book argues that people in the United States consume a lot more than they should and are harmed by their consumption. In this book, he divided planned obsolescence into two sub categories:
obsolescence of function, which is intentionally making a product non-functional after a certain time to boost sales, and the other, pernicious one
obsolescence of desirability, or psychological obsolescence”, referred to marketers’ attempts to wear out a product in the owner’s mind and induce a desire to own the newer product
The electronics industry has lately emerged as the worst abuser of this predatory strategy, and the company that comes to mind first in this regard is Apple Inc. A long running lawsuit filed against the company in 2017 was settled in March this year when the company agreed to pay up to $500 million after admitting it had deliberately slowed down older iPhone models using software updates.
The controversy, popularly known as “Batterygate” first emerged in late-2016, when it was reported that since a recent iOS update, some iPhone models had begun to experience unexpected shutdowns when their battery capacity reached 30%. In December 2016, Apple stated that it would begin to investigate the issues, and reported a reduction of unexpected shutdowns for iPhone 6 and 6S phones on the iOS 10.2.1 update released in February 2017.
Apple apologised and slashed the price of battery replacements as part of the March 2020 settlement. Just weeks ago, Apple received a €25m fine in France for slowing down phones. It also agreed to place a statement of wrongdoing on its website. While US news outlets quietly buried the article under other headlines, the March 2020 settlement may have adverse implications, tech critics say.
As of January 2018, 32 class action lawsuits had been filed against Apple over this issue. A Chicago lawyer who proposed a $5 million class-action considered the battery discount “an insult to loyal customers who consistently and with much fanfare have flocked to Apple stores worldwide to purchase every version of the iPhone.” But the safety nets the legal system has provided have proved to be extremely ineffective.
Courts are still comfortable with treating intentionally planned sabotage of sold products as yet another “business model”, which basically means that now manufacturers cannot be held accountable for their products beyond the warranty period, where expectations of continuing functionality might be totally reasonable. In the end, it’s not the iPhone user who decides whether they should be able to expect more than 2 or 3 years out of their $1,000 investment — it’s Apple.
An article published by Larry DiMatteo and Stefan Wrbka in Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy neatly sums up the situation:
“The problem with planned obsolescence is that the purchaser is no longer able to use price as a surrogate for quality or, more minimally, for the durability of products. Planned obsolescence, generally an industry wide phenomenon, often results in the reduction of durability (less than is achievable using state of the art design and materials) across product categories and brands within a given category of products. This diminishment of the state of art is motivated by the manufacturers seeking to increase future sales or repairs.”