Planned obsolescence and its consequences for the environment

In recent decades, we more often assume that the useful life of many objects is relatively short, because of deteriorating or becoming obsolete with the passage of time. In many cases, in the event of a breakdown, the manufacturer directly says that it is not profitable to repair it and directs us to buy a new one.

But the reality is that this cessation of operation is part of its design and, in many cases, has been carefully planned by these manufacturers to force us to buy new products.

This circle of purchases and renewals generates immense amounts of waste, specifically technological waste, which produces 2.5 billion tons per year only in the European Union. An alternative to this problem would be the circular economy, a model of consumption that invites us to reuse, repair and recycle existing materials and products whenever possible in order to increase their life cycle.

In this article we will tell you about the concept of planned obsolescence and the consequences it can have for the environment. 

What is planned obsolescence?

This term refers to the conscious decision by the manufacturer of a good or product to provide it with a predefined useful life and, after that time, it loses its quality, functionality and usefulness, forcing the consumer to replace it with a new one. Thus, commercial motives drive and sustain the phenomenon of planned obsolescence. 

In historical terms, the light bulb was the first recorded case of planned obsolescence: some 30 years after its invention, manufacturers had achieved such perfection in the design and manufacture of light bulbs that they could operate for almost 2,500 hours. Far from considering this a success for the industry, longevity put the business model at risk, as there was not enough demand to sustain the fixed costs of obtaining raw materials and paying workers. 

Therefore, manufacturers decided to shorten the lifespan and since then, light bulbs melt and we need to change them from time to time. For consumers, this leads to higher costs but the environment also suffers to a greater extent as more resources are needed for their production, increasing the volume of waste generated.

Types of planned obsolescence

There are several types of planned obsolescence, but the most popular are: functional, technological and design or psychological obsolescence. 

Regarding functional obsolescence, it is the most common of all and is easily recognizable: it appears when the product failure is caused by the fact that the manufacturer designed it to stop working after a certain point in time. As an example, the batteries of cell phones usually start to cause problems within a year of a purchase.

On the other hand, the mobile operating system could be related more to technological obsolescence, a form of programmed obsolescence that consists of incorporating outdated technology into products that quickly become obsolete and inoperative. The user will have to renew it, without any possibility of updating the device, as it can happen with desktop computers or laptops

Finally, design obsolescence or psychological obsolescence is the one that directly influences the consumer’s mind. It deals with a modality in which a product becomes obsolete just because it goes out of fashion. The world of clothing and textiles, where brands are constantly launching new collections on the market and trends last less and less time, so it seems a perfect example.

Programmed obsolescence and the environment

As we have already mentioned, the most immediate consequence of this constant renewal of products, which in many cases work perfectly but have just gone out of fashion, is the increase in technological waste. Such accumulation of waste, which also has insufficient recycling rate, results in a deterioration of the environment which, in turn, has an impact on climate change. 

Moreover, manufacturing cycles are becoming shorter and shorter and consume a greater amount of raw materials, some of which are scarce and strategic, such as coltan, which allows us to reduce the size of batteries. The product distribution process also consumes large amounts of energy, in addition to increasing atmospheric pollution.

How can we fight against planned obsolescence?

The first step, which is shared with the circular economy, is to consume more responsibly, trying to reduce the level of waste generated by our daily activities as much as possible. In this way we achieve a successful defense and preservation of the natural environment, in addition to supporting new concepts such as “alargascence” and  adopting consumption patterns that extend the useful life of our products or goods on a daily basis. 

Along with this sustainable consumption, it is important to remember not to throw away anything that we can reuse or repair, and thus also increase its lifespan. We cannot forget the importance of recycling, since practically all elements can be recycled. 

But we do not only find individual measures, as collectively the European Union announced in 2015 the introduction of a labeling that tells us how long the product will last, a move that France has already made into law. While the European platform Right to Repair advocates the development of products that last longer and the right of users to repair and replace damaged components. 

Germany has also recently introduced a new law requiring cell phones to last at least seven years

Fortunately, more and more countries and citizens are joining forces to promote a more sustainable model of economy.