Lifestyle

Things Just Ain’t What They Used to Be: The Rise of Planned Obsolescence

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Abrahamsen

In my closet I’ve got something you don’t see on store shelves anymore. It has rounded corners and chrome trim. It has a tweed exterior, and the inside is sewn with beautiful silver quilted brocade fabric. There’s barely a scratch on it. The beautiful vintage train case belonged to my grandmother. It’s at least 60 years old and three owners deep.

I have no idea what the train case is made of, but I’d assume steel based on its resilience. It’s truly in incredible shape for its age, and not because we treated it so well, either. I used it as a teenager without regard to what might happen to it, and my children have used it in their dress up adventures. They have stood on it, bashed it against things and overstuffed it with toys and tried to shut the latches. The reason this case is so durable is not because of the brand, but because it was made before the era of planned obsolescence.

Planned obsolescence is when manufacturers intentionally put flaws in the products they sell so that they will break and need to be replaced. Popular Mechanics published a list of products that are affected by it. If consumers want quality, though, why would manufacturers purposely create shoddy products? Let’s take a look at the reasoning.

What happened to product quality?

Flikr/David Monderer
Flikr/David Monderer

The market as we know it today is tremendously different than what it was long ago. The Industrial Revolution vastly simplified and sped up product assembly, thereby enabling mass production on an unprecedented scale. What used to take skilled craftsmen and mechanics weeks to make could be easily churned out by a machine or assembly line in a fraction of the time. After that, America became a giant of industry. Factories sprang up all over the nation making all kinds of things. Marketing in that day and age mostly involved in-person demonstrations or written testimonials. People had fewer things and kept their possessions much longer than we do now. So when buying any product, they kept in mind how long it would last. Repair shops were common, and when something broke, it wasn’t difficult to fix it.

This might now seem alien to people who just buy a new product when their old one goes out of style or breaks. In fact, it costs so much to repair a television now that it makes more sense to simply buy a new one. Products are so shoddy now that you’re lucky to get a few years use out of anything. When you can buy a new toaster for $25, why would you get it repaired for $30 when the heating element goes out? You wouldn’t. And manufacturers know that. By making products that break, they are artificially creating demand.

What kinds of things are affected by planned obsolescence?

Flickr/Frankieleon
Flickr/Frankieleon

You can sell a good quality product to the public, and that’s good business, until it lasts so long that people start handing them down to their kids. When that starts happening, sales drop, and then what? Well, some producers decided the best way to handle that is to add in some flaw so that the product would cease to function properly after a given amount of time.

A common example of planned obsolescence is ink cartridges. You can buy a brand new printer for about $80. It’s a good printer, but the printer is actually not the problem. It’s the ink. A new set of ink to fill up the same printer costs about $33. That’s not so bad you might think, especially if you don’t do much printing. That’s where you’d be wrong, because most printer manufacturers these days have added in little tricks.

Specifically, many printer cartridges contain computer chips that don’t allow the printer to access the ink if it’s past a certain time period. In essence, your printer ink has an expiration date, even though it’s still viable. So when you’re spending over one-third of the cost of the printer on ink that won’t last until it’s all gone, it starts to feel like a huge racket.

If you’re thinking that planned obsolescence is really an economies of scale issue, it’s not. Real estate broker Bernard London first suggested it as a solution to ending the Great Depression in 1932. The Phoebus Cartel, a collusion of light bulb manufacturers in the early 20th century, decided to shorten the life of lightbulbs by 1,000 hours. So yes, quality products cost more to manufacture. But there are plentiful examples to prove that planned obsolescence is indeed intentional.

Is it China’s fault?

Image courtesy of Elizabeth Abrahamsen
Image courtesy of Elizabeth Abrahamsen

Short answer, not exclusively. It’s true that Chinese-made products aren’t always fantastic. But China is not solely to blame for planned obsolescence. Chinese manufacturing can be blamed for selling crummy products in a you-get-what-you-pay-for kind of way. You’ve probably got your own story of a bad product from China, because the U.S. is the world’s largest importer of products from China. This is mostly because Chinese-made products are cheap. Chinese products are cheap because, well, they are made as cheaply as possible, by cutting as many corners as can be.

Chinese factories today are much like factories in the U.S. were before labor laws were passed. History is full of stories of American factory workers who were disabled or killed in the sweatshops of the past. In China, the sweatshops are still operating. The poor working conditions in Chinese factories were widely reported in 2010, when workers at Foxconn City, an industrial complex in Shenzhen which churned out HP, Microsoft and Apple products, began committing suicide on the job. It got so bad that the factory installed “suicide nets” to catch jumpers.

Wired ran a story in 2015 about the hazardous chemicals Chinese factory workers are being exposed to which have put many people in the hospital or left them disabled.

It’s an American problem, too.

Flickr/Phil Roeder
Flickr/Phil Roeder

Chinese products aren’t the only issue, though. Pyrex baking dishes (which are manufactured in America) were once considered a very reliable brand. However, a few years ago it came out that the new Pyrex dishes were quite literally exploding if they got too hot. Pyrex made a name for itself with extremely heat resistant bakeware, so it was really confusing to consumers. I myself own a Pyrex measuring cup that I bought about four years ago. The measurements have begun washing off from the bottom up. Meanwhile, the Pyrex measuring cup my mom owned since before I was born in 1983 still has its red lines perfectly visible. The culprit behind the change in quality seems to be a switch from borosilicate glass to soda lime glass, which is not as heat resistant. Pyrex licensed its brand to World Kitchen in 1997 and the quality seems to have gone down from there.

If you’ve bought any kind of new appliance in the past ten years or so you may have had to deal with countless repairs just a couple years after purchasing it. Peter Dreier, professor of Politics and chair of the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College, lamented the decline of the American appliance in a 2016 piece for the Huffington Post entitled “My Dishwasher is What’s Wrong With Capitalism”. In his article, Dreier states that planned obsolescence is simply the intended function of “American-style hyper-capitalism,” where products are built to break in order to raise corporate profits.

Planned obsolescence as a marketing ploy:

Flickr/Gonzolo Baeza
Flickr/Gonzolo Baeza

Another type of planned obsolescence is where things may still work, but the new model is superficially more desirable. You can see this type in the automotive industry and the tech industry. Every year there is a new model of car or phone out. We don’t really think much of it. Not many people can afford to buy a new car every year. Especially given the depreciation of cars as soon as the first owner drives them off the lot. However, the addition of a new pull-down step, an automatic opening trunk or three additional cup holders is completely intentional. You probably don’t need cordless headphones or a larger screen on your phone, but chances are you want them. In this case, the products don’t break, but you want a new one because of the new features.

Should our products cost more?

The first objection you’re likely to make is that if manufacturers start using better parts then the products will cost more. Well, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad. It might be more economically smart to just buy a new $25 toaster. But what if you got Peter Dreier’s $700 dishwasher? After repairs and purchasing an extended warranty, he spent more than double the original cost of the appliance, without any improvement in quality. As a consumer, I’d personally rather pay a little more upfront for a quality product than be forced to shell out again and again to fix a crummy product.

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Things Just Ain’t What They Used to Be: The Rise of Planned Obsolescence