What Is Planned Obsolescence


In economics and industrial design, planned obsolescence is a policy of planning or designing a product with an artificially limited useful life, so that it becomes obsolete after a certain period of time. The rationale behind this strategy is to generate long-term sales volume by reducing the time between repeat purchases. It is the deliberate shortening of a lifespan of a product to force consumers to purchase replacements. Producers that pursue this strategy believe that the additional sales revenue it creates more than offsets the additional costs of research and development, and offsets the opportunity costs of repurposing an existing product line. In a competitive industry, this is a risky policy, because consumers may decide to buy from competitors instead if they notice the strategy. Planned obsolescence tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly.

What Is Planned Obsolescence

Planned obsolescence, premature obsolescence or built-in obsolescence is a strategic policy of deliberately producing consumer goods designed to rapidly become obsolete, useless and require replacing. This is often achieved through frequent design changes, using nondurable materials, terminating the manufacture and availability of replacement parts and introducing a superior model of the product. The goal of this strategy is to bolster demand by forcing consumers to have to purchase a newer model or a replacement as the old one quickly becomes useless, out of date and ceases to function properly.

Examples Of Built-In Obsolescence

In industrial design there are many examples of products with a useful life that is artificially limited. They include the use of cheap plastic or soft metal screws in stress-bearing components, toys with small, brittle plastic gears that break easily and prevent key functions, disposable cameras and handheld electronic devices with very fragile batteries. Digital watches with sealed casings that prevent repair, inkjet printers with print heads which fail after a specific number of copies and laptops and electric toothbrushes with sealed-in batteries users can’t replace are other examples.

The iPhone And Samsung Galaxy S6

Some iPhones’ tamper-resistant pentalobe screws are a design feature that frustrates repairs because it’s difficult to remove them using common consumer tools. In 2015, the Galaxy S6 released by Samsung Mobile had a design that made replacing the battery very difficult because doing so might cause irreparable damage to the main board of the phone because a strong adhesive held it in place and prying it loose could damage the delicate components to which it was in close proximity. Consumers either had to send it off to be repaired by a repair service or the manufacturer or buy a new phone.

Is Planned Obsolescence Real?

Generally speaking, the answer is ‘Yes’. However, there are caveats. While built-in obsolescence is a real thing, it is partially designed to keep consumers happy by the creation of shorter ‘innovation cycles’. Consumers often clamor for better versions of popular products. When companies create products that quickly become obsolete and then release newer, better versions of the products, many consumers love it. From a business perspective, built-in obsolescence helps them to make more money. Rather than having a consumer keep the same product for many years, products with short lifespans generate more sales and increased income.

Feeding A Ravenous Consumer Culture

Built-in premature obsolescence helps to feed a ravenous consumer culture. Consumers love to know they have the latest version of products everyone uses. Today’s ravenous consumer culture thrives on a constant flow of ‘next generation’ products designed to make things easier and more convenient. Manufacturers react to consumer demand, whether it’s created through real need or as a result of effective marketing. This type of premature product obsolescence is of great benefit to manufacturers and is a practice which sustains and enriches many companies. So, yes, built-in obsolescence is real.

What Is The Right To Repair Movement?

The Right To Repair Movement champions the right of citizens to repair electrical and other types of items they buy. It is supported by private citizens, organizations that work to protect the environment as well as repair professionals who oppose built-in obsolescence repair prevention tactics used by many manufactures. Members of the Repair Movement are working to move city, state and federal legislative bodies to pass Fair Repair bills. The coalition feels consumers and repair professionals should have access to and be able to use replacement parts to repair devices millions of people use daily.

Breaking The Buy-Use-Dump Cycle

According to United Nations research published in Global E-Waste Monitor in 2014, the e-waste produced each year from discarded products created by the Buy-Use-Dump cycle is about 50 million metric tons. Continuing to do that will have landfills overflowing with harmful metals and toxic chemicals. The passage of the Massachusetts Automotive Right to Repair Act in 2012 inspired repair enthusiasts to form the Repair Association and encouraged consumers, environmentalist and repair professionals to use their belief in the right to make repairs to everyday items to get their movement legislative support.

Is Built-In Obsolescence Legal In The United States?

It is 100% legal, if not ethical, for companies in the U.S. to create products with built-in obsolescence. However, they must make consumers aware of this feature. Companies manufacture disposable cameras, printers, anti-virus software, batteries and many other products that have a clearly stated limited lifespan. People who purchase these products do so with the knowledge they are designed to stop working after a set period of time or number or hours of usage. The iPhone is another example of artificial obsolescence. When one model is released, a better model has already been developed. What States Have Passed The Fair Repair Act And Similar Repair Laws Currently 20 states, including Illinois Kansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Nebraska, New York, Tennessee and Wyoming have seen versions of the Fair Repair Act and other repair laws introduced in their legislature. These laws are designed to give people the right to fix their appliances, cameras, cell phones, computers, tractors and other products that use the latest technology. If passed, they would compel manufacturers to make repair information and spare parts available for purchase by the public. Apple is fighting the law in Nebraska while John Deere has opposed similar laws in Kansas since 2015.

Does Planned Obsolescence Drive Innovation

Some companies argue that built-in obsolescence drives them to invest in the research and development that leads to innovation. Environmental activists, some consumers and many repair professionals are adamantly opposed to the continuation of the practice. The United Nations University says mishandled electronic waste has the potential to be catastrophic to all form of life by polluting the air, soil and water. Government prosecutors in France and citizens in Israel and the United Stated have sued companies over built-in obsolescence. Companies like Microsoft are fighting to protect the practice.

Consumers Must Decide

Ultimately, it’s consumers who will decide with their dollars if built-in artificial obsolescence is acceptable.

Planned Obsolescence FAQ

What is planned obsolescence with example?

Here are some examples of planned obsolescence: Setting a limit to how long a light bulb lasts as per the Phoebus cartel. Another example would be to create a new phone model every year with minor changes that make it incompatable with old versions.

What is planned obsolescence simple definition?

Planned obsolescence is a method of intentionally ensuring that the current version of a product will expire or lose it’s usefulness within a known time period.

Is planned obsolescence good or bad?

Planned obsolescence can be good or bad. Most consider it bad in that customers don’t know when the product will become obsolescent.

What companies use planned obsolescence?

Many companies have been accused of planned obsolescence: Apple slowing down old iPhones, HP creating ink cartridges that stop working prematurely, Pearson for creating modestly changed textbooks and H&M for creating fast fashion.

Is planned obsolescence legal in US?


Who invented planned obsolescence?

Alfred P. Sloan

Are cars designed to fail?

While cars might not be deliberately designed to fail, they are designed to appear obsolescent (perceived obsolescence).

Further Reading