The case against planned obsolescence

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Every year, as we approach Christmas time, the pile of gifts under the tree looks as promising as ever. Most of them are new electronic toys that as consumers  we crave. A new smartphone, the latest game console, the latest brand of TV. All these  gadgets are strategically released before December, and then sell like hotcakes.

But for a number of reason several of them will have to be replaced in the next holiday season.

The main cause behind it is because of tricks companies employ, otherwise known as “planned obsolescence.” Described as “derived from the consumer society” in a study of the European Centre of consumption, this concept characterizes deliberately manufacturing electronic products that would not last, prompting consumers to buy new products to replace the defective product.

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It is important to understand the different forms of planned obsolescence. The following is an outline of the typical forms of this phenomenon:

  • Indirect obsolescence (or functional defect): it is characterized by the breakdown of one part of the machine, these parts are very difficult to replace. Cell phones are particularly vulnerable to this defect. Batteries of cell phone go out of service very quickly. Sometimes called obsolescence of after-sales service, it encourages consumers to buy a new product rather than undergoing lengthy and costly repairs.
  • Systemic obsolescence (or obsolescence through incompatibility): it happens when products no longer work with the new updates. Mainly affected products are computer software, which become obsolete due to the new version of a program.
  • Aesthetic obsolescence: it affects electric devices or clothing. For example, many products will be deemed ugly in comparison to their most recent version, or no longer in fashion. A well known case is the swiftly changing design of the gadgets for the brand apple. For a brand like this, consumer behavior may be affected in an unpredictable way…
  • Operational obsolescence: this applies to products that are scheduled to last for a while, especially washing machines, televisions, microwave ovens…


To fight against these industrial practices, several platforms came into existence lately and they can help consumers that are affected. Sometimes they provide consumers with tools to repair defective products, with the help of a community of consumers. Others offer a rental system of electrical or electronic products, so that one can try them out before buying.

Friends of the Earth, the global environmental network, proposed three measures to fight against planned obsolescence: “Creating legal measures against planned obsolescence”, “extend the ‘legal ‘warranty and guarantee compliance to 10 years” and “demand company support for repair and reuse .”

And finally, a clear legislative obligation that requires manufacturers to inform consumers about the availability of essential spare parts of the product would help to fight the phenomenon of planned obsolescence.



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