12 April 2018
Written by: Brian O’Reilly, Founder of EGG Lighting
During the great depression of 1932 planned obsolescence found its champion; Bernard London published his essay, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence.” The essay invoked economic optimism based on advances in manufacturing and agriculture. Planned obsolescence was associated with choice, jobs, innovation, value engineering and a thriving economy.
Unfortunately, planned obsolescence has now come to signify vast landfills, impractical products and the pollution of our environment. In economic terms, it is associated with big businesses making profit at the cost of the environment and hoodwinking consumers into buying things they don’t need. This is a far cry from what the original proponents envisaged.
Obsolescence has a place. A bit like cholesterol, there is a good type and a bad type. Bad obsolescence introduces cosmetic changes that improve neither utility nor performance. This is called “pseudo-functional obsolescence”. Good obsolescence involves “value engineering” with the purpose being to use as little material as possible, while providing an acceptable lifespan, this is well suited to hi-tech goods and fosters continuous innovation.
In my view, the main failure of planned obsolescence is the lack of planning around what happens to a product when it is deemed obsolete? It still exists as a product, so what happens next? We can reuse it or recycle it, is the stock response. However, often this is very impractical and takes more time effort, cost and energy than making a new one.
‘Reuse’ and ‘recycle’ are useful end-of-life concepts, however execution often fails in technology products e.g. phones, cars, PCs, as it is an afterthought. The situation is greatly improved if ‘Reuse’ and ‘recycle’ are considered at the idea stage and designed-in. Reuse at the design stage means “modular and upgradable” and ‘recycle’ is minimising reprocessing and remanufacturing effort.
As consumers, we can support this design effort with purchasing power. Buying a product is like a vote for the product. Without sufficient votes it will fail. The challenge lies around getting the right product info into the public domain so that we can make informed ‘votes’. We can’t leave it in the hands of marketing execs, who often appeal to our faculty for making irrational decisions.