Whether you’ve ever uttered the phrase, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” truthfully or ironically, you’ve unknowingly espoused deep wisdom and highlighted a horrendous engineering practice that dates back almost a century. In fact, more than alive and well, this practice has been refined over decades to become standard in most major design and product engineering processes, albeit under different names. Once heralded as a breakthrough in design and economics, there now lay a dark underbelly to this practice that adds to the ever-growing list of problems wreaking havoc on our environment and contributing to climate change.
I am referring to the practice of planned obsolescence. The mere words alone sound dirty, don’t they? If you’ve come across this term before, then you’ve likely already shaken with rage upon learning about the practice of designing products to intentionally fail or rapidly decline in intended function in order to limit the useful life of a product and force you to buy it again.
The history of this sinister, anti-consumer policy dates back to the early automotive boom. Alfred Sloan is credited with the idea in the 1920s, though his original preferred term may have been, dynamic obsolescence. You may remember Sloan as a long-time executive of General Motors, the namesake of MIT’s business and management program, the person who provided key technologies and machinery to the Nazis in the late 1930s, or as the asshole that advocated for fully systemized organizations that left employees as little more than cogs in the machine. Yes. That Alfred Sloan.
Sloan realized that, with the 1920s American automotive market rapidly saturating, he needed a way to boost sales year over year. The problem was that early engineering designs were built to last, so there was no need for consumers to buy anything from car manufacturers on a regular basis. Sloan’s solution was to release new models and parts annually that both forced consumers to buy updated parts when modifying or replacing old ones, as well as gave the impression that older models of vehicles were rapidly depreciating.
The effects were near-instantaneous and profound. The automotive industry had found a perfect barrier to entry for its oligopoly, with smaller players unable to keep up with the rapid product release cycles. Meanwhile, various parts of cars became designed to fail at intentional moments in the vehicle’s lifespan, forcing individuals to either replace components or buy an entirely new car. This practice would be refined and perfected over the coming decades, and emerging from the second World War, the designed-to-break philosophy had crept outside of the automotive industry and was becoming accepted across several sectors.
These days, we’re all too familiar with planned obsolescence. When the tiniest plastic part breaks off one of our possessions, we experience the frustrations of planned obsolescence. However, this was such an economically successful concept that it led to others of similar intent and disgust. Many organizations would design products to prevent the owners from modifying or repairing them. This is a current hot topic, with consumers fighting for the right to repair possessions such as electronics and farming equipment. Big tech took the concept a step further and pioneered forced obsolescence: the practice of deploying software or ecosystem developments that make a hardware product all but useless within the broader ecosystem, thus forcing consumers to buy a new device.
Yet as frustrating as these concepts are to consumers forced to buy things over and over again, the biggest loser to planned obsolescence is the environment. Gasoline-powered cars are obviously a huge source of carbon emissions. However, an often-overlooked problem is in the energy and emissions required to source materials, manufacture a vehicle, transport it, and dispose of it.
The whole point of planned obsolescence is to get us to buy more stuff. Modern products break easily, are difficult to repair, rapidly lose their value in constantly evolving ecosystems, and are quickly deemed passé by a culture obsessed with novelty. From an economic perspective, it means that we consume more, however, from an environmental perspective, it means that we waste more.
There is, however, a glimmer of hope amidst this sea of waste. Some organizations are taking note and designing products not to fail, but to last, to be repaired, or to be easy to upcycle. Volvo, long famous for their tank-like cars, still offers a lifetime warranty (https://www.volvocars.com/en-bh/own/shop/parts-warranty) on all part defects, though information is shoddy on how modern Volvos hold up to wear and tear. Patagonia offers a lifetime Ironclad Guarantee (https://help.patagonia.com/s/article/Ironclad-Guarantee) on most of their garments in an industry obsessed with fast fashion. Blundstone, Canada Goose, Saddleback, Briggs & Riley, Craftsman, CamelBak, Gibson, and Zippo are all part of the growing list of manufacturers who are confidently backing their product designs with lifetime warranties.
While these brands stand for quality and craftmanship, they are sadly the exception, not the rule. How do we encourage other brands to take note and start designing products to last decades instead of months? Regulation is one option, however, corporations are slippery things that often find ways of sneaking around the rules. Another option is to change the mindset of consumers. We, as buyers of these products, need to start factoring in the environment when making purchases. Not only should we be demanding transparency into supply chains to ensure that increasingly environmentally friendly materials and processes are being used, we should also expect more from the designs we buy.
As we become more climate-conscious as a society, products should be increasingly designed and marketed with eco-friendly practices in mind. Cheap, disposable plastics should be demonized and we, as consumers, should vote with our dollars. This will be an uphill battle, because durability will often be an adversary to price. However, more and more individuals are realizing that this is a battle that we must fight and win if our time on this planet is to continue.
While these types of products tend to cost more, they also tend to last significantly longer than cheaper comparables. And beyond clinging to a well-worn product that you love as much for its features as for the stories you share with it, these products in time will stand as a badge of honour to committing to the reduction of your impact on a world suffering the effects of planned obsolescence.