Planned obsolescence sucks

Corporate greed keeps us from having products that last

I should be able to preserve my technology. AntonioGuillem / iStock

By: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

Do you know how your phone has somewhere between two to three years before it starts slowing down? Or how you have to replace light bulbs every few months or so? That’s planned obsolescence in action, and it’s a gross industrial strategy. What this means is that companies will design their products to break down in a certain amount of time so customers will be encouraged to buy their newest products. And it makes me want to scream.

This is an age-old strategy. The oldest known case of planned obsolescence is the Phoebus cartel; from 1924 to 1930, several major lightbulb manufacturers made the lifespan for light bulbs shorter by 500 hours. The bulbs were of higher quality, but they cost more and sales increased as people replaced them more often. Companies have been making bank off products with set deadlines for a long time.

Think again about cell phones, which seemingly come with cameras that are far more professional than an average person needs. Is it really necessary to buy those upgrades? Probably not, but if your phone becomes sluggish, it’s easier to justify getting a new phone. I know towards the end of the three years I had my Samsung phone, the keyboard became really unresponsive. I would sometimes have to wait a minute as it caught up with the sentence I had texted. 

And it’s not a matter of how well someone takes care of their device: Apple is infamous for lawsuits about dropping performances in older phone models when new updates are out, and they’re likely not the only company to do so. 

Planned obsolescence also extends to things outside of technology, like textbooks that are reprinted with minor changes and exclusive codes, forcing students to buy the newest version. It’s frustrating when I can’t save $40 or more using a textbook that is only two years older than the one in the syllabus. This strategy forces students to spend more money for what feels like minor edits. And what about the garbage planned obsolescence encourages? All of this has environmental consequences — where consumer culture goes, waste is bound to grow. It all feels a bit helpless considering it’s so ingrained in our culture, and our actions amount to little compared to big corporate strategies. 

Even so, I find that learning about it and being aware of its presence can help, especially because planned obsolescence isn’t regulated in North America. Additionally, supporting bills that advocate for sustainability and a right to repair is one way to fight against planned obsolescence — especially as many cell companies shut down independent repair. Bill 197, for example, was introduced to amend the Consumer Protection Act for greater sustainability of consumer products. 

While it was unfortunately rejected, there will likely be another Bill 197 in the future that needs support. Until then, there are many initiatives we can support that reward companies for sustainable innovation and longevity.