The Tricky Economics of Obsolescence

The Tricky Economics of Obsolescence

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Planned obsolescence has been in the spotlight again in the last week, as Quebec just passed a law outlawing planned obsolescence, similar to the law under which France is investigating Apple. Quebec’s law includes several pro-repair provisions, including a requirement that manufacturers make repair information available free of charge.

Maybe someday we’ll have phones meant to last 20 years again. Image CC via Nesster on Flickr.

The term planned obsolescence is a dirty word. It conjures images of smoke-filled rooms of corporate leaders scheming for more profits and purposely designing shoddy products. It has happened exactly like this in the past but how obsolescence works in today’s world is a bit more complicated, and so too are the answers for ridding ourselves of it.

This week, economist and YouTuber who uses the handle Unlearning Economics released an hour-long video essay trying to get to the bottom of planned obsolescence. In his video, he suggests that while it’s possible to assign some blame for obsolescence to various actors, he emphasizes that obsolescence is rooted in our economic systems. In other words, focusing solely on eliminating planned obsolescence without addressing larger systemic issues would be overlooking the bigger picture—and wouldn’t address the other significant challenges present in our late-capitalist world.

Unlearning obsolescence

The phrase “planned obsolescence” was popularized by American industrial designer Brooks Stevens in the 1950s and reflected an explicit strategy by manufacturers to design and market products with a limited lifespan, encouraging consumers to buy replacements more frequently.

And while companies continue to get caught juicing their profits by shortening product lifespans, this doesn’t mean that all disposability is the same. There are plenty of single-use products that have raised living standards across the globe. Think: syringes, BandAids, or tampons. But there is a clear difference between the value brought by these types of disposable products and the low-quality, disposable electronics sold to us each year. And as time passes the problem of throw-away culture is getting worse, not better. That’s because planned obsolescence is a feature, not a bug, as Unlearning Economics reminds us.

“Despite ripping us off, producing massive waste, destroying the environment… none of us can get off the treadmill [of planned obsolescence] we’ve collectively created. Planned obsolescence isn’t capitalism failing. It’s capitalism working.”

— Unlearning Economics

But moving beyond our throw-away tendencies is difficult. There are serious economic considerations like recessions and unemployment that could ensue if we slowed production drastically. The video shows how difficult France is finding it to enforce its law as a prime example of how entrenched these problems are in our legal and economic status quo.

Image CC via Sascha Pohflepp on Flickr.

The right to repair movement however draws praises in the video for its tangible and tactical approach. While right to repair might at first seem simple—starting with parts, tools, and information to make things last longer—it is also a powerfully simple way to understand big problems. Repair activities offer a practical and relatable lens through which people can grasp the larger societal and environmental issues related to consumerism, waste, and sustainability.

Repairing products involves taking concrete actions to extend the lifespan of goods, which, in turn, allows individuals and communities to gain insight into the negative consequences of our disposable culture and the environmental impact of rapid product turnover. Repair offers us a hands-on way to more deeply understand these broader economic issues perpetuating planned obsolescence.

Other news

  • Apple declared its first-gen Apple Watch obsolete, including its 18-karat gold models which originally retailed at $17,000. This means watches will no longer receive repair support or software updates, and the unofficial leak of this news comes just after the company announced their new line of carbon-neutral smartwatches.
  • Lenovo says 80% of devices will be repairable and recyclable by 2025, contributing to a circular economy and reducing environmental impact. They plan to enable on-site repairs for batteries, SSDs, and more. The announcement was made by Luca Rossi, a Senior Vice President at Lenovo at the Canalys EMEA Forum 2023. Rossi was discussing the company’s commitment to achieving a net-zero emission policy by 2050.
  • Right to repair is gaining steam in states and on Capitol Hill. The Washington Examiner reports on progress towards winning a legal right to repair, with state and federal efforts and even industry giants like Apple and Microsoft showing support.
  • Making repair more accessible means addressing the environmental necessity of repair while acknowledging obstacles like pricing and reliability concerns. The Club de la Durabilité, a network of companies focused on extending product lifespans, released a new report (PDF in French) outlining best practices and recommendations to promote accessible and reliable repair services.
  • Google caps Pixel 8 support at seven years, which will include software, security, and feature updates until October 2030.