Is Planned Obsolescence Humanity’s Worst Invention?

If you’ve ever visited a landfill, contemplated carbon emissions, complained about a faulty product you just purchased, or pitied the plight of poorly paid workers in developing countries, you’ve been touched by the controversial design concept known as Planned Obsolescence. 

“The idea that manufacturers – and producers of goods – deliberately make goods that have shorter life spans than they could have in order to drive repeat purchase of those goods,” sums up Professor Cameron Tonkinwise, director of the design and innovation research centre at the University of Technology Sydney(UTS).

From lightbulbs to cars, washing machines to fridges, computers to phones, and fast fashion, the world is littered with items that have been designed to fail. It’s not always for the reasons you might think, “which is a bunch of evil CEOs getting together and saying screw the public, let’s make them buy as many goods as possible,” says Professor Tonkinwise. The current cycle whereby most of the planet endlessly consumes cheap, poorly made products is responsible for more carbon emissions than anything else. Suffice to say, this model is in desperate need of rethink.  

“Nobody has the guts to break ranks and do something differently,” says Professor Tonkinwise.

“And if you do something differently while the existing system is in place you’ll be punished by the existing system,” he says.

Planned Obsolescence first came into vogue on an industrial scale in 1924 via the Phoebus Cartel, a global conglomerate of corporations that included Osram (German), Philips (Dutch) and General Electric (USA), which conspired to ensure no lightbulb on the market would last longer than 1000 hours, despite their capacity to last more than twice that.

“It was the explicit aim of the cartel to reduce the life span of the lamps in order to increase sales,”

“Economics, not physics,” Markus Krajewski, a media-studies professor at the University of Basel, told the New Yorker back in 2016.

“It was the explicit aim of the cartel to reduce the life span of the lamps in order to increase sales,” he says. 

Planned obsolescence became part of the solution to widespread unemployment and economic stagnation during the Great Depression. By making cheaper items with a shorter life span, captains of industry argued they would be able to employ more people and “Make America Great Again or something stupid like that,” says Professor Tonkinwise. 

“And they styled the goods to make that communication clear. They started introducing objects in series: cars (came) in the 1929 series, the 1930 series etc. And all of that was about coaching the public into participating in technological development, which was also participation in a growth based economy,” he says.

There was a problem with this model, however. Endless consumption required endless natural resources (fossil fuels, minerals, water etc) for production and fuel. The global superpowers didn’t have those resources so they invaded other countries to secure them. 

“Now let us assume that we lose Indochina. If Indochina goes, several things happen right away…The tin and tungsten that we so greatly value from that area would cease coming. So you see, somewhere along that line, this must be blocked and it must be blocked now,” United States President Dwight Eisenhower warned ominously, in 1954, prior to America’s invasion of Vietnam, so beginning another war over Indochina’s resources (the peninsula of South-East Asia comprising Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) that to the deaths of millions.

America’s need for Indochina Tin was for its automotive industry, the crown jewel of American consumerism and planned obsolescence. Tungsten, as it happens, is the key ingredient in the original sin of planned obsolescence, lightbulbs.  The fight for Indochina’s tin and tungsten reserves are just one example of wars and bloody coups fought in the name of resources and consumerism.  

Others include the second war in the Congo, fought over Coltan, a mineral used in the construction of mobile phones and computers, which cost 5.4 million lives – the largest loss of life since World War II. 

Closer to home, the CIA, with cooperation from the UK and Australia, backed a bloody coup in Indonesia resulting in the genocide of between 500 000 and one million left-leaning students, peasants and workers. Officially, it was to stop the spread of Communism and “bring countries into America’s sphere of influence” but numerous investigations by the world’s top journalists have proved over and over again it had more to do with granting foreign corporations access to what US President Nixon called “the richest hoard of natural resources, the greatest prize in south-east Asia.”

“Ralph McGehee, a senior CIA operations officer in the 1960s, describes the terror of (Indonesian General-President) Suharto’s takeover in 1965-6 as “the model operation” for the US-backed coup that got rid of Salvador Allende in Chile seven years later,” writes the esteemed, multiple award-winning investigative journalist, John Pilger, for The Guardian. 

“The deal was that Indonesia under Suharto would offer up what Richard Nixon had called “the richest hoard of natural resources, the greatest prize in south-east Asia”. In November 1967 the greatest prize was handed out at a remarkable three-day conference sponsored by the Time-Life Corporation in Geneva. Led by David Rockefeller, all the corporate giants were represented: the major oil companies and banks, General Motors, Imperial Chemical Industries, British American Tobacco, Siemens, US Steel and many others. Across the table sat Suharto’s US-trained economists who agreed to the corporate takeover of their country, sector by sector. The Freeport company got a mountain of copper in West Papua. A US/European consortium got the nickel. The giant Alcoa company got the biggest slice of Indonesia’s bauxite. America, Japanese and French companies got the tropical forests of Sumatra. When the plunder was complete, President Lyndon Johnson sent his congratulations on “a magnificent story of opportunity seen and promise awakened”. Thirty years later, with the genocide in East Timor also complete, the World Bank described the Suharto dictatorship as a “model pupil,” Pilger writes.

The origins of planned obsolescence might have been a conspiracy but Professor Tonkinwise says that’s not necessarily  the case anymore.

“Much of what gets called planned obsolescence is not simply exploitative product life shortening, but something that comes with very genuine new value propositions built into subsequent models of products,” he says. 

“These could be important (for sustainable) energy efficiency gains, increased safety and reliability, increased usability and productivity, or wholly new practices in the same product category area (eg TVs, VCRs, DVDs, Streaming),” he says. 

As it stands, global consumption accounts for more than 60 percent of the globe’s greenhouse gas emissions and up to 80 per cent of the world’s water use. The impact of global consumption now exceeds the replacement rate of the planet’s resources by one and a half times (it would be four times if everyone on Earth consumed like the average American). The richest countries are the worst offenders, as in biggest consumers: America tops the list with a per capita carbon footprint of 18.6 tonnes CO2 equivalent; tax-haven Luxembourg is second with 18.5 tonnes, and Australia is third with a per capita carbon footprint of 17.7 tonnes CO2 equivalent. China, which is often blamed for its role in generating carbon emissions, only does so to service the consumption appetite of wealthy, western nations. 

“If you look at China’s per capita consumption-based (environmental) footprint, it is small,” says Diana Ivanova, a PhD candidate at Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Industrial Ecology Programme. “They produce a lot of products but they export them. It’s different if you put the responsibility for those impacts on the consumer, as opposed to the producer,” she writes. 

“The richer a country is, the more its inhabitants consume. The more an individual consumes, the bigger that person’s impact on the planet,” she writes.

The writing has been on the wall since 1982 when the O.E.C.D first warned governments to address the issue of over consumption and its effects on the environment. Today, as the world enters the “extinction phase” and the United Nation’s IPCC report warns greenhouse gas emissions must be cut to zero by 2050 to avoid catastrophic climate change, consumer behaviour needs to change, and fast. 

The European Union issued its first collective response in 2003 with its Waste of Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive – what Professor Tonkinwise calls “a remarkable moment,” in which, “a large bloc of countries made a system intervention to move towards what is now a circular economy.”

“They agreed altogether that they were never going to put electrical equipment in landfill, which meant all those goods had to have take-back clauses, and they all had to return to the manufacturer for disassembly and component recovery and materials recovery, or materials disposal, at the cost of the manufacturer. So that was extended producer responsibility legislation,” he says. 

Another “very feasible” solution,  says Professor Tonkinwise, has been provided by the Factor 10 Institute, comprised of professors and scientists around the world, which advocates citizens in wealthy countries “own one tenth of the products they currently have, or make everything last ten times longer, or use one tenth of the energy we currently use.”

Neither solution has been taken up by the world’s biggest consumers, namely Australia and the United States. Though it is very much within the realms of possibility. 

“It’s definitely the case if the government made a regulation now that every single product that was made had to last more than a decade that would be absolutely functionally possible,” says Professor Tonkinwise. 

“If you are prepared to spend very significantly on your material science and engineering it is definitely possible to make goods last a very long time,” he says.

Such inaction in times as desperate as these naturally lends itself to conspiracy theories but Professor Tonkinwise warns against them.

“These aren’t evil people thinking how can we destroy the planet. These are a bunch of people responsible for a small part of the system, who always comply with the system, rather than working out how to change the system,” he says. 

In order to reduce the carbon footprint of global consumption and preserve life on planet earth, Professor Tonkinwise says the onus is on governments to create incentives for corporations and consumers to behave more sustainably. Instead, we’ve got the opposite. 

“Governments don’t penalise short term products. If I buy a cheap product the GST is lower. If I buy an expensive product the GST is bigger as a percentage,” he says. 

“Labour repairing services are taxed much more heavily than goods and the government doesn’t force manufacturers to pay for waste disposal. We have a government that has encouraged a river based retail system and not a lake based resource productivity system,” he says. 

The way consumption is encouraged in the current system, only the rich can afford durable, long-lasting products. The poor are forced to buy bottom of the range, rent or lay-by them, “which makes them double or triple the capital cost over time. So in fact the wealthier you are the cheaper it is to buy things because you have the upfront cash to pay,” says Professor Tonkinwise. 

Ultimately, the planet must reach a place whereby consumption patterns reflects the earth’s resource capacity and its ability to renew itself. Otherwise rich and poor alike will lose out.

“This needs to be a whole of system approach in which you recognise that not only the wealthy can afford (durable goods),” says Professor Tonkinwise.

Published by Jed Smith

Journalist with 15 years experience across every major news outlet in Australia.

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