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The first death: planned obsolescence

An idea that belongs to capitalism: producing goods that soon stop working (programmed death) and have to be replaced time and time again. Their inventors: the big multinational companies.


Miriam Valero


If someone goes into their local shop wanting to have something repaired that has broken down (a computer, printer, mobile phone etc) it is almost certain that the shopkeeper will say that although it can be repaired it will be cheaper to buy a new one.

At that point, when the user thinks logically that the best thing is to buy a new one, built-in obsolescence has triumphed.

This simple term, which first appeared in 1932, is one of the pillars holding up our present capitalist and consumerist society.

Built-in obsolescence is the concept of producing goods that are not intended to last a lifetime and be the best quality, but good products designed to last a short time and stop working after a pre-determined period.

This principle currently applies both to novel products using new technology such as computers, MP3 players, phones and printers; but also to more traditional goods like women’s tights, light bulbs, cars, refrigerators or vacuum cleaners.

All of them carry within them the moment when they finally stop working.

The first death

After the Crash of 1929, the huge fall in share-prices on the US stock exchange, one of the biggest worldwide economic crises began, which lasted until the end of the 30’s, during which society stopped consuming. It was then that the economist Bernard London used the term for the first time in his text: Ending the Depression through Planned Obsolescence.

In this he argued that if manufacturing were to be able to continue, products had to be made with a lifetime which was pre-determined at the time of manufacture.

So, London’s pamphlet did not promote the long life of goods or their continued functioning for many years, but accused the public of being responsible for stifling the economy, by extending the life of products at a time of unlimited manufacturing capacity.

This necessity to replace goods in order to find a way out of the bad economic situation later mutated into what is called ‘perceived obsolescence’, a further development of the term.

In this concept, goods are not designed to break down after a pre-determined time in order to stimulate the economy. Instead production is turned into an activity in which the consumer is constantly encouraged, through advertising, to buy new products beyond what they really need.

The case of the light bulb

In a US petrol station in Livermore, California there is a light bulb which has been on constantly since 1911. This point of light, which this year will have been working for 111 years, was built to last, not to be replaced and create business.

If today we see light bulbs as products with a short lifetime, it is due to the Phoebus cartel, which was set up in 1924.

This group, among whom were included manufacturers as important as Philips or Osram, were concerned about what would happen if the public acquired long-life bulbs and then stopped buying new ones. So they decided to make short-life bulbs.

Although the obsolescence accord only lasted until 1939, following a claim of bad practice, the cartel managed to continue the intended effect until today. The purpose was to considerably reduce the useful lifetime of bulbs, so that they were frequently replaced; and to instil in the mind of the consumer the idea that this short lifetime was normal.

Ironically, the internet camera, the Webcam, which recorded live the 111 year-old light bulb, had itself to be replaced several times due to its own built-in obsolescence.

The same thing which happened with the light bulb also happened in the last century with women’s tights, vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and cars.

In the last case, during the first years of the assembly line, vehicles which were sold with the guarantee of having ‘engines for life’, stopped being profitable, because the public preferred smaller and cheaper models, which could frequently be changed for newer ones.

Today’s goods

The majority of goods in today’s consumer society are produced with some kind of built-in obsolescence. For example in the case of ‘Wesley vs Apple’, the advocate Elizabeth Pritzker showed in 2003, that Apple manufactured the batteries for its famous i-Pods with built-in obsolescence.

The company was taken to court, suspected of making its Lithium batteries to have a limited lifetime. The case succeeded and after a technical analysis of the characteristics of the batteries, the consumers won.

Until then, when a battery in any product failed, the only solution that Apple offered had been to buy a complete new product. Then, after payment of compensation, the consumers succeeded in making the company provide an official battery-exchange service.

Similarly, printers are another victim of this kind of abuse. Through the internet many users have already found out why printers stop working: because of a chip which counts the number of pages printed. When the product reaches a limit, it trips out, and requests technical support.

Programmed obsolescence affects well-known brands of printers like Epson or HP. The ultimate built-in obsolescence is Nike, which has designed shoes which, they warn, will only last for 100 Km.

Against death

Today many consumers are making an effort to extend the life of their goods, and reduce this abuse developed by the big companies. In addition, these consumer groups are fighting against one of the great evils of obsolescence: the generation of waste which generally ends up polluting developing countries, oppressing their populations even more.

In Russia, a computer programmer, Vitaly Kiselev, created a programme to extend the life of a printer, by re-setting its chip. This software neutralizes the effect of built-in obsolescence, permitting the product’s long-term use.

In Spain, an international group of engineers, led by Benito Muros developed an LED light bulb which will last a lifetime under the premise that ‘despite technological advances, products used to last longer’.

Thus the company OEP Electrics has made this bulb which does not need to be replaced, does not generate waste, whose manufacture emits up to 70% less CO2, and allows a 92% energy saving.

This company leads the Sin Obsolescencia Programada (No built-in Obsolescence) movement, which is encouraging other firms to produce high-quality goods which last a long time.

In a similar trend, the big multi-nationals are responding to the awareness of consumers about built-in obsolescence and their movements to stop it. And more and more consumers are mobilizing and making joint protests and demanding solutions from companies about goods with low quality standards, which in reality are manufactured to stop working. Cases of consumers campaigning against companies include such well-known brands as Samsung, Sony, Apple, Nike or Ikea.

(Transated by Graham Douglas – Email: – Photos: Pixabay

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