From the first time your phone runs out of charge unexpectedly, crashes while opening an app, or has no room to store a photo, you know the writing is on the wall. This little device, your daily companion, is not long for this world. It’s almost time for a new phone. It may have a few months left in it, even a year or two if you take good care of it, but thanks to planned obsolescence, its day will come.
Planned obsolescence is a practice many businesses use to keep customers buying their products on an endless loop. This process can be inconvenient and frustrating, not to mention a massive drain on your wallet over time. While some degree of planned obsolescence is unavoidable, there are also many ways for a savvy consumer to stay one step ahead and outfox this questionable practice.
What Is Planned Obsolescence?
Planned obsolescence is a practice where modern corporations sell products that aren’t built to last. In many cases, consumers can buy these products at relatively low cost but need to keep replacing them with newer ones often, typically spending more money over time.
The strategy enables businesses to grow their profits while ostensibly offering good deals on affordable products.
This unfortunate practice leaves consumers with less money and lower-quality goods. It also contributes to unsustainable environmental burdens like unnecessary electronic waste.
Of course, not all obsolescence is purposely wasteful. Most consumer goods, even those made from high-quality materials and expert craftsmanship, will eventually outlive their usefulness and need replacements. The constant march of cultural and technological advancement will also turn many things into relics of a bygone era, and understandably so.
Product lifecycles only become predatory when a company, either through direct action or neglect, intentionally leans into shortening product life expectancy.
Planned obsolescence originated from depression-era companies looking to stimulate revenue on products like incandescent light bulbs. Over the past hundred years, the tactic has steadily grown and evolved. While not every modern company engages in it, it has become standard practice.
Examples of Planned Obsolescence
Planned obsolescence is not exclusive to one area or business; it transcends companies, industries, and geographical boundaries.
Organizations employ various unique methods to encourage you to throw out your old stuff and return to buy more. Therefore, everyday consumers must maintain extra vigilance to protect themselves from these problematic practices.
Though far from the only offender, the technology industry has become the poster child for planned obsolescence. Issues like the short 1-2 year lifespan of mobile devices that cost hundreds of dollars have led various consumers and organizations to cry foul.
Some technological obsolescence is due to legitimate limitations. For instance, exposure to heat causes some electronic components to degrade. Mobile phones generate a lot of heat and, due to their size, cannot cool themselves nearly as well as laptops and desktops. Issues like these account in some part for shorter lifespans of some products. However, there are plenty of examples of overt, built-in obsolescence in the tech sector, such as:
- Annual releases of new models with only marginal improvements
- Features purposefully built to make some users feel excluded
- Proprietary printer ink cartridges that are incompatible with other printers
- Software updates that clutter and slow down older devices
- Batteries that users cannot replace after their useful lifespan
- Deliberate neglect of R&D efforts to improve hardware and software longevity
With the rapid evolution of new technology, some amount of needing to “keep up with the times” is inevitable. Yet unfortunately, some in the electronics industry intentionally lean into this idea, making “the times” a carrot dangling in front of you that you can never quite reach.
The fast fashion industry didn’t invent the mass production of low-quality merchandise, but it is one of the biggest offenders. Cheaper materials and construction enable large businesses to crank out affordable clothing at a baffling rate. As a result, countless retailers fill their shelves with less comfortable clothing that is prone to shrinking, tearing, or otherwise falling apart.
However, like tech, the fashion industry also capitalizes on planned obsolescence through social engineering. Ever-changing styles keep shoppers buying the latest stuff to avoid feeling left out.
Of course, cultural tastes will continually change over time, and clothing designers should be free to pursue their creative passion. However, brands intentionally embrace the creation of fleeting seasonal trends and styles to make consumers continually chase the nebulous goal of fitting in.
Major mall brands like H&M and Forever 21 have repeatedly come under fire for mass-producing cheap, trendy clothing, most of which quickly ends up discarded in landfills.
Another clear example of planned obsolescence in fashion is the evolution of neckties, which get slimmer, wider, then slimmer again in a continuous cycle. As a result, ties from 20 years ago will always look outdated, and you’ll always need to replace them to keep up.
The rise of Scandinavian-style furniture has brought several positive changes to the marketplace:
- A lightweight, minimalist aesthetic
- A rise in DIY assembly and attitudes
- Availability of cheap furniture for college students, young adults, and anyone needing to quickly and cheaply furnish an apartment
Unfortunately, it has also rapidly lowered the bar for furniture quality. Elements like solid wood and metal materials, durable upholstery, and finer aesthetic details have quickly faded from mass-market existence.
Cheap furniture isn’t necessarily a problem; sometimes you need a simple wooden end table, and whatever you can buy for $40 is perfect. However, when cheap furniture becomes the only (or at least the primary) option, consumers are again pushed into the circular economy of planned obsolescence.
A cheap armchair or table stops being the affordable option when it needs replacing every few years.
In many cases, good, solid furniture can last decades or even generations. Affordable Swedish alternatives, while easy on the eye and often a convenient solution, can also contribute to an endless cycle of shopping, consuming, disposing, and then shopping again.
Online commerce has offered many small businesses, artists, and brands the potential to sell their unique, niche offerings to a global audience. But, unfortunately, it has also spawned a plague pit of shady manufacturers peddling some of the lowest-quality junk yet crafted by humanity.
Companies like these are in a constant race to the bottom — offering online shoppers products at prices so low they don’t make sense, and quality so poor that the pricetags actually do start to make sense.
Often, these products are incredibly specific novelty finds tailoring to niche interests. However, they can also be unreasonably cheap alternatives to name-brand items.
In either case, the products usually come from brands you’ve never heard of and seldom live up to a high standard. Some customers may seek refunds for misrepresented or broken items, but because of the low prices, many will write these purchases off as acceptable losses.
Additionally, these brands are so small and abundant that poor name recognition or a bad reputation isn’t necessarily a serious problem for them. After a bad customer experience, the business can move on to a new customer who’s never heard of them, and the customer can move on to another brand they’ve never heard of, and the cycle continues.
7 Ways to Outsmart Planned Obsolescence
1. Buy for Value, Not Price
One of the best ways to avoid the toll of planned obsolescence is to carefully consider what you buy in the first place. Spending extra time carefully selecting your purchases can yield significant results.
The most important thing is to avoid the trap of being persuaded by the low upfront price of a product alone; its potential value is crucial to the equation, too.
Try to remember this motto when shopping: buy less, but better.
Often, a brand with a higher initial price tag will offer a better product that will last longer. As a result, not needing to replace it as often can save you money over time.
This principle holds for everything from big purchases like furniture and electronics to simple things like groceries. For example, if one brand of dish soap costs a dollar less but is so diluted that you need to use twice as much, it might not ultimately be cheaper than another brand.
2. Utilize the Secondhand Market
One side effect of planned obsolescence is that when most new products aren’t designed to last forever, people get used to them being disposable.
Accustomed to products falling apart and becoming obsolete, many people see little value in things they no longer use and are quick to throw them out.
However, not everything is as quick to become obsolete as consumerism conditions us to assume. Plenty of items remain beautiful, functional, and valuable long after their original owner moves on from them.
For a well-informed shopper, this spells opportunity.
Buying second-hand goods, either directly or through intermediaries like thrift shops, helps to short-circuit the functional obsolescence cycle. Every item you buy used is one less for the landfill and saves you money. As a bonus, the secondhand market helps to filter out low-quality items that break quickly. If it lived long enough to end up on a thrift store shelf, it likely has at least moderate longevity.
3. Practice Digital Minimalism
As discussed above, there are two sides to the aging and degradation of electronics and digital gadgets like smartphones. On the one hand, there is the natural aging and deterioration of technology due to regular use. But, on the other hand, there is intentionally planned obsolescence.
Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to counter industrial malpractice directly. However, there are many ways to lighten the day-to-day strain on an appliance or gadget so that it doesn’t wear out as quickly.
Digital minimalism is the practice of thinking intentionally about how and when you use your electronics. Over time, this practice can significantly improve the lifespan and functionality of your digital devices.
No electronic products are designed to last a lifetime, but intentional use can expand the period of time in which they work smoothly. That can buy you more time before upgrading or looking for a new one to replace what you have.
4. Use Warranties and Refunds
Warranties and refunds exist to protect consumers from things like misrepresentation of products, faulty manufacturing, and potentially even their own decision-making. In the case of planned obsolescence, it could be all three.
A refund policy allows you to return a purchase to recoup what you spent on it, and a warranty is a limited guarantee from the manufacturer to repair or replace it if things go wrong. Both are ways to protect yourself from poor products that don’t meet expectations.
Empowering yourself to take advantage of these tools gives you more leverage as a consumer. You can protect your money and make safer spending decisions. As a side benefit, you can disincentivize that business from selling such a faulty product in the first place.
Remember that this is a tool you have at your disposal. In many cases, considering these options before buying something will also help make better purchasing decisions.
5. Practice Your Right to Repair
Planned obsolescence and the accompanying rise in throwaway culture have taken something away from the average consumer, and it’s not just their money. It’s the spirit of DIY repair.
When an object is cheap enough to replace brand-new, many people don’t even consider the possibility of repairing it when it breaks. But fixing your things is such a terrific pursuit in several ways:
- You can save money and stop feeding the endlessly hungry machine of planned obsolescence
- It is a great way to learn new skills and exercise your brain
- Possessions that have lived a long life, served you well, and have the scars to prove it can be a surprising source of joy
People repairing their things directly threatens planned obsolescence, which is why many companies actively work to prevent it with things like tamper-proof hardware. This is an ongoing struggle and the heart of the right-to-repair debate.
Even so, there are still usually ways for ordinary people to repair things like their furniture, clothing, appliances, and more.
Following in the theme of DIY skills and breathing new life into your things is the strategy of upcycling.
There are many ways to draw new value from an item that no longer serves its initial purpose. One option is to give or sell it to someone else who can use it; another is to repair or refurbish it.
But if you still want to keep something that has completed its initial lifecycle, you can give it a whole new life by upcycling it! Like repairing, upcycling is a great way to save money, build new skills, salvage high-quality materials, and add unique beauty and character to things you love. Recycled and upcycled possessions can be fulfilling, unique, and personally rewarding.
7. Emphasize Owning Over Acquiring
One reason that planned obsolescence has had such runaway success with throwaway consumer culture is that it plays into how our minds work.
As hunter-gatherers, we love to accumulate things that may be of future value to us. It gives us a rush of dopamine to find something new to bring back to our caves. But, unfortunately, we don’t always put the same emotional premium on the things we have already collected.
The good news is, it’s nothing a little bit of conscious attention can’t solve.
Through practices like mindfulness, gratitude, and minimalism, we can learn to better appreciate the things we have and find more joy in them, taking away from the energy that drives us to continually stay shopping and trying to fill some perceived hole.
Planned Obsolescence is Clever, But Not Too Clever for You
Planned obsolescence is everywhere. Almost anywhere you shop and any product you attempt to buy, at least some of your options will be designed to fail and keep you coming back for more. And unfortunately, like many commercial practices, it capitalizes on our emotions in ways we’re not necessarily well-equipped to handle.
The good news is that this tactic is usually quite transparent and easy to identify. On top of that, there are things you can do in almost every case to mitigate the burden and find long-lasting products. You deserve to own awesome things that do their jobs well, fill you with joy, and are made to last. And with a bit of strategy and a few techniques, you can.