Why things don't last anymore: Planned Obsolescence
This is Part 14 of the series Money on Your Mind, a blog series created to tell you exactly what you need to know about your brain and your spending habits in a straightforward, simple format. Quality and durability are two factors which have seemed to leave the equation with modern products. Why is that? And why is it important to understand it as a consumer?
“Things nowadays just aren’t the way they used to be.”
If you haven’t said this yourself, you’ve almost certainly heard your parents say this as they’ve reminisced about the past. Even if you didn’t realize it, this is a trend of planned obsolescence, a business practice where products are built to be replaced more rapidly than necessary. Planned obsolescence is used for almost every product that can be upgraded or replaced, but may be presented in a variety of ways.
What is Planned Obsolescence?
Simply said, planned obsolescence is when products are intentionally designed by manufacturers in order to not last a long time and are therefore ‘disposable’ after a certain period as they no longer serve their purpose at the time of purchase. This often happens because companies want you to buy more of their products in order to drive more profitability.
Planned Obsolescence in Practice
Let’s take a look at the tech industry. Have you ever noticed your phone or laptop working slower after a critical software update? Has your battery life dramatically decreased on your phone? If you’re an Apple or Samsung user, you’ve likely experienced this.
- The Tech industry
In 2017, Apple was fined €10m, while Samsung was fined €5m for planned obsolescence of their mobile phones. Apple admitted to slowing down older models of iPhones, addressing many users’ complaints of their phones running slower just before Apple released new models. However, Apple claims that this effect was not planned obsolescence, but rather a tactic to preserve ageing batteries. Similarly, Samsung users complained that a recommended software update for the Galaxy Note 7 led to slower functionality on the Galaxy Note 4. By slowing down and decreasing the effectiveness of their old products, users are urged to upgrade and spend more money. Often, there will be trade-in policies where users can upgrade their phones at a discount by giving their old phone in, which encourages customers to stay with the company.
Software updates aren’t the only issue of planned obsolescence in the tech industry. Accessories and sizes of products are often changed, forcing users to purchase new products every time they upgrade. Apple has used this to their advantage, by frequently changing the dimensions of their iPhones, pushing users to purchase new phone cases and screen protectors. Apple has changed its chargers to the lightning cable for the iPhone in 2012, as well as USB-C for Macs in 2015. By changing something vital to a product, such as a charger, companies can force consumers to purchase new equipment, increasing how much you spend when you upgrade your products. Yet, these changes often come with increases in efficiency and effectiveness, whether it is faster charging, a longer battery life, or new features to unlock your phone.
2. The Beauty industry
Tech companies aren’t the only ones who use this tactic. Neutrogena is facing a class-action lawsuit for its light therapy acne mask. The lawsuit claims that Neutrogena prevents customers from accessing the full battery power, which should be guaranteed from the initial purchase. The mask is set to 55 uses so users can try it in-store but shuts off after 30 uses once the packaging is opened. The performance of the mask breaks the promise of 30-day battery life.
3. Fast fashion and the fashion industry
Planned obsolescence isn’t just a tactic about slowing down the effectiveness of products. It also applies to the very operation of other industries, like fashion. Especially with the prevalence of fast fashion in today’s world, clothes aren’t built to last. The very structure of the industry encourages this, as fashion trends go in and out with the blink of an eye. With fads changing so quickly, clothing is rarely made high-quality, as people are expected to buy new clothes frequently to stay in tune with what is trending. In this way, fashion garments aren’t usually changing for practical innovation, but rather for style. Still, clothing companies charge high prices for stylish, but low-quality items since consumers are paying to stay on-trend, rather than to keep durable and long-lasting clothing
The downside and the upside of Planned obsolescence
The economic explanation for this business practice can be seen on a larger scale. Even though you spend more money on a new charger when Apple changes the model, economists argue that more jobs are created and supported by obtaining materials, manufacturing, and shipping. The more items need to be replaced, the more this workflow is supported to sustain jobs and allow workers to make a living.
Still, there are many red flags to planned obsolescence. Sustainability in manufacturing is a pressing issue that is gaining more awareness. By having so many items be increasingly disposable, the waste in the world can dramatically increase, especially if the products being replaced often are so widely used. Often, purchasing products with planned obsolescence can be unavoidable, so being able to distinguish quality products can be challenging. Knowing this, it is important to take the time and money to research and invest in quality products when possible.
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