Planned Obsolescence: Ethical or Not?

Ethics and Responsibility


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Business Consultant, United Arab Emirates

Planned Obsolescence: Ethical or Not?

Have you ever wondered why you need to change your cell phone every 2 to 4 years? Smartphones need replacing every couple of years, as battery life fades and software updates are no longer available. For women fellows here, have you ever questioned why nylon stockings last such a short time?

The answer for this, in case you wondered, is: "Planned Obsolescence". Planned obsolescence (also called Built-in Obsolescence or Premature Obsolescence or, more positively: Design for Lifetime) in industrial design and economics is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so that it becomes obsolete (i.e., unfashionable, or no longer functional) after a certain period of time. The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases (referred to as "shortening the replacement cycle"). It is the deliberate shortening of a lifespan of a product to force consumers to purchase replacements. In simple terms, the ultimate goal is to optimize and align the lifetime of components of a product. Or to make you buy products again and again, depending how you look at it.

There are at least 4 main ways or methods in which a company can achieve planned obsolescence: contrived durability, prevention of repair, system and software updates, and perceived obsolescence:
  1. CONTRIVED DURABILITY: This is a strategy of defining (shortening) the product lifetime before it is released onto the market, by designing it to deteriorate in a certain amount of years (quickly). The design of all consumer products includes an expected average lifetime permeating all stages of development. Note that it is impossible for any designed object to retain its full function forever; all products will ultimately break down, no matter what steps are taken. The strategy of contrived durability is generally not prohibited by law, and manufacturers are free to set the durability level of their products.
  2. PREVENTION OF REPAIR: Using relatively unreliable parts in a product, so it mechanically fails within a relatively predictable period of time. This gets you to discard it and buy the same exact product again or a slightly newer version. A special form is using non-user-replaceable batteries.
  3. SYSTEM AND SOFTWARE UPDATES: Using software to program a product, like a printer, to fail after a set period of time or number of actions (like printed pages), even if mechanically and structurally the product is fine. A software upgrade incompatible with older hardware is another strategy for planned obsolescence.
  4. PERCEIVED OBSOLESCENCE: Using clever marketing and/or an insignificant upgrade in a new product to get you to discard the 'uncool' old one, even if it works just fine. Smartphone manufacturers are known for this. Who doesn't want that new camera in the newest phone with all those fancy special effects nobody really uses?
Note that certain companies use combinations of these methods.

This practice has both negative and positive consequences, depending also on your viewpoint:
- The increased waste of old non-recyclable products with a negative impact on the environment.
- Newly developed social behavior that encourages to consume more and to purchase more to feel alive.
+ A products lifetime is limited per definition. Matching the lifetime of components is making efficient use of them.
+ As a result of this vicious, yet virtuous practice, industry has made countless goods cheap and thus available to nearly anyone in wealthy and even developing countries. Many of us indulge in comforts unimaginable a century ago.

It appears we an ethical paradox here to go with or against these practices, what do you think? Is it ethical, or legal to apply planned obsolescence in products? Does it depend on the 4 types?


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