Planned Obsolescence


‘Sometime very soon, we need to start talking about an economy that improves quality of life while reducing the quantity of material resources it devours and excretes,’ Geoff Davies wrote in New Matilda  last week. That time is now.

My lovely daughter gave me an expensive Olympus digital camera in 2003. I enjoyed using it occasionally. Now, less than four years later, it must be thrown away plus its box of bits and brochures because the camera’s memory card is obsolete. So says the Olympus shop, charging $60 for cleaning the camera before telling us the card cannot be replaced: ‘Try ringing around shops or eBay.’

We live in an era of planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is a decision on the part of a manufacturer to design products to become unusable quickly. This stimulates marketplace demand because customers must buy again, sooner than they would if the product lasted longer. It happens with cars, light bulbs, software, clothing and buildings.

Our GDP figures prove that this works. There is growth in the economy when people are forced to keep buying replacements. But it is false growth in view of its environmental consequences, and it is false economics because it diverts customer buying power from more sustainable ways of improving our quality of life.

Planned obsolescence increases pollution and environmentally damaging emissions through the production of goods that would not otherwise need to be created. It exacerbates the problems of landfill and waste disposal, because most obsolescing products are not designed to be recyclable. It also wastes materials and workers’ lives that could be spent more profitably and more usefully.

It is difficult if not impossible to find replacement parts for electronic goods even a few years old. Cheap printers may evolve rapidly as technology improves, but cartridge availability for older models is liable to disappear. ‘No more parts made. You’ll have to buy a new printer,’ they say.

And it’s not just the hardware that becomes obsolete. Microsoft’s new Vista operating system, for example, is rumoured to force users to abandon old software and computers and buy new ones, even more than already happens.

This is not to say that continued advances in products aren’t essential despite improvements in technology, we still do not have ideal refrigerators, cars, houses, or almost anything. We still need new inventions and breakthroughs to make lives better.

But customers deserve some idea of how long a product is expected to be repairable or parts available.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas

There are a number of factors that make this difficult. Companies that guarantee availability and long-term repairability may be located overseas; they may go out of business, or evade responsibility by metamorphosing into another business name. Liability may discourage companies from making too many promises although many products do have guarantees over 10 years, with repair and replacement warranties.

It would be good if products with planned or inbuilt obsolescence could be taxed or otherwise penalised, but this may be too invidious to be possible.

Customer power and public boycotting is probably the strongest and simplest weapon. More customer information about durability, mendability, updateability and availability of parts should be available and sufficiently publicised. (Note that I use the word ‘customers’ and not ‘consumers’ horrible word with destructive implications.)

At present, advertising goes for what is proven to work which is emotional and aesthetic appeal and minimum practical information about a product. Educators today boast that they train students in ‘multiliteracy.’ A major literacy needed by students is purchasing-savvy.

Goods on sale now bear stars for their expected energy and water efficiency, use-by-dates, and logos indicating whether they were made in Australia or by an Australian-owned company. Dangerous products bear warnings.

Perhaps optional logos could carry information about expected durability, mendability, updateability and availability of parts. A bright little rectangle with a time estimate inside it say, ’10 years.’ How long should a new house last before it needs to be pulled down? Fifteen years, one builder told me. Fifty years might be fairer, even if we expect vast changes in the way houses are built over the next few years. A hundred years for large, solid, public buildings seems fair.

If anyone jibs that without planned obsolescence jobs will disappear and capitalism won’t work properly, let us remember that our present economic system is not divinely ordained or necessarily static. We created it. We can improve it to prosper without planned waste.

About half of all production is wasted at some stage or another. Cutting the production of almost-instant waste is a faster and more efficient way of reducing carbon emissions than carbon trading, which assumes emissions can continue as before so long as we plant trees (while other forests are felled).

Far too many jobs are invested in producing waste. The alternative approach is that if everything that needed to be done was being done, there would be no unemployment.

We have to start to take this seriously, because planned obsolescence is helping to promote the unplanned obsolescence of us and the planet.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.