It’s time to put the idea of ‘planned obsolescence’ on the scrap heap

Consumers live in a world dominated by 12-month guarantees and in-built self-destruct buttons. Can this manufacturing model get better?

Tipping point: the lifespan of many consumer goods has never been shorter as new products render predecessors obsolete

Tipping point: the lifespan of many consumer goods has never been shorter as new products render predecessors obsolete

Mon, Feb 17, 2014, 15:47

The city of Livermore, California is home to the longest burning light bulb in the world. It has burnt continuously since 1901 (if you don’t believe me you can watch it live at www.centennialbulb.org. Ironically it has already outlived two webcams).

While often used as the symbol for innovation and invention, the light bulb was in fact one of the first victims of “planned obsolescence”, defined by American industrial designer Clifford Brook Stevens as “the desire on the part of the consumer to own something a little newer, a little sooner than is necessary”.

In fact, this approach has been central to almost all manufacturing processes since the 1950s. And here we are in 2014 with flat pack furniture designed only to be assembled once, operating systems staying relevant for a couple of years if we’re lucky, and smartphones that are out of date by the time they’re brought home from the store.

In other words, planned obsolescence has never been so commonplace. “You’re always designing three years in advance, and you’re designing with desire – rather than need – in mind,” explains Prof Alex Milton, head of the Faculty of Design at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin (NCAD). “It’s a growth model, the economy is based on growth.”

That growth is in part maintained by the development of future desirable products as well as consumer tastes and demand.

“There are many areas where the natural order of consumer demand will render the product obsolete,” explains Robert Tully, senior lecturer in design, at DIT.

“Both the fashion and technology sectors are shaped by this. In fashion, consumer demand around latest styles and trends dictates that there needs to be a continuous flow of new concepts, each rendering the previous obsolete. The technology sector is the same.”

Worst offenders
These two industries are often cited as the worst offenders. “The IT industry as a whole, along with fashion? They’re as bad as it gets,” says Milton. “We all recently saw the horrors in Bangladesh caused by the fast fashion industry. Well if you go to Guangzhou, China where Apple products are manufactured, it’s pretty much the same situation: contemporary sweatshops.”

Because of the very nature of innovative technology, it is almost forgiven how quickly products and services are deemed out of date.

“It’s all about the new,” says Milton. “But the vehicles that carry new technological possibilities should have some durability. They don’t need to be disposable. We can update software very easily. So it’s more a hardware issue.

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