Planned obsolescence, a manufacturing technique used in a large number of fields and industries, is the creation of devices and other goods with the intent that they will stop being usable after a given period of time. While planned obsolescence can be beneficial to a company by increasing profitability and sales, the practice has obvious detrimental effects to consumers and to the environment, raising the question of its ethical merit. Though planned obsolescence is not illegal, many people debate whether it is moral. In light of the social and environmental costs of planned obsolescence, it should be found that it is neither an ethical nor a responsible way to achieve profitability.
Many of the companies that practice planned obsolescence can develop or have already developed technologies that are built to last. For example, one of the earliest instances of planned obsolescence is now known as the Great Light Bulb Conspiracy (Krajewski, 2014). In the 1930s, an engineer with General Electric proposed a way to increase sales at his company by inventing an incandescent light bulb with a shorter lifespan. The light bulb was designed to last only 1,000 hours. In comparison, previous light bulbs had been built to last between 1,500 and 2,000 hours. The switch to a shorter-lived technology represented a trade-off between longevity of the product and efficiency. The new light bulb burned brighter and was of higher quality than the previous light bulbs. However, they were also significantly more expensive, and had a significantly reduced life cycle. Rather than being motivated by a desire to deliver the best product to their customers, the corporate heads of General Electric were driven by greed and a desire for profit.
The strategy of planned obsolescence has since spread to many other industries, most notably the computer technology industry and the software sector of that industry. In particular, in an attempt to force users to buy new products, some software companies will terminate support for older technologies. This is especially true for proprietary softwares, which will reach an end-of-life point at which the supplier will stop delivering updates. The alternative to proprietary software is open source software, which unlike proprietary software will always be able to be improved through updates. Open source software companies are often seen as preferable to their closed source or proprietary counterparts. Not only do open source software products offer greater flexibility to consumers at a lower cost, they also deliver more innovative and higher quality products, since users themselves are able to participate in the development of the technology (Noyes, 2010).
With planned obsolescence, after a given amount of time, a product or device becomes obsolete, or worthless. Usually, this results in the customer being forced to dispose of the product and replace it with a new version. This often comes at great cost to the environment. Planned obsolescence contributes to the growth of landfills, and requires that more natural resources be extracted from the earth. For example, people are constantly replacing their cellphones due to the fast pace of advancements in cellphone technology, with many people buying new phones once or twice a year. Old phones are often disposed of in inappropriate ways that are harmful to the environment. Cellphones contain elements that are dangerous to plant and animal health, such as lead, cadmium, bromine, chlorine, and mercury. When a discarded cellphone reaches a landfill, it will begin leaking these toxic elements, contaminating the environment. The chemicals released by trashed smartphones have been linked with birth defects, learning disabilities, and other health problems. Some reports estimate that as few as 25 percent of disposed cellphones reach a recycling center; the remaining 75 percent go into landfills to become waste (Wall, 2012).
Not only does the release of heavy metals from discarded cellphones have deleterious effects to human health, but so does the extraction of elements to be put into cellphones. In order to produce the smartphones we use and enjoy today, elements such as gold, tin, tantalum, and tungsten have to be mined from ore deposits in mountains and quarries. The mining of these elements has been linked with the exploitation and brutalization of workers in the Democratic of Congo. Additionally, once these elements have been extracted, they are sent to be processed in factories in China, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines. Low standards of safety and underemphasis on the regulation of safety measures at these factories mean that the workers there are directly exposed to dangerous levels of toxic chemicals (Wall, 2012).
When products are designed to endure and to require replacement as infrequently as possible, the environmental and safety costs of creating those products are minimized. However, with planned obsolescence, the costs to human health and to the environment are disregarded in favor of maximizing the profitability of the company selling those products. When companies engage in planned obsolescence, people – miners and factory workers – are treated as a commodity so that a handful of people may benefit greatly. In addition, consumers are left with a product that is less durable and of lower quality than the company is capable of producing.
When engineers, designers, and developers are forced to create products with a predetermined death-date in order to meet the short-term market needs of a company, they are cheated of the opportunity to work towards more ambitious engineering goals. Most professionals would prefer to be able to take enjoyment and pride in their work, and forcing them to conform to the strategies of planned obsolescence robs them of the enjoyment that could be taken from perfecting their craft. Few could easily take pride in intentionally designing and creating an inferior product, which is what planned obsolescence forces them to do (Beder, 1998).
Planned obsolescence is one of the least environmentally responsible practices that companies can legally engage in. At the opposite end of environmental policy from planned obsolescence is sustainability. Sustainable practices are those which aim to create goods or services that are able to endure. Sustainability measures create conditions in which humans and nature interact in harmony. In contrast, planned obsolescence, in its creation of products designed to eventually fail, exerts an overwhelming force over the environment. For example, due to this practice, the fastest growing source of waste comes from electronic devices such as cellphones, computers, and tablets, according to a report by the United Nations. Although proper electronic waste disposal facilities are available in industrialized countries, in developing countries they are harder to come by. In developing countries the electronic waste is often disposed of through burning, which releases particulate matter into the air, contributing to heavy atmospheric pollution (United Nations, 2013).
Planned obsolescence presents an easy way for companies to force productivity and profitability. However, the cost to consumers is great, in that they are forced to repeatedly replace old devices with newer versions. The cost to the environment and to the health of those who help create the products is yet even greater.
Krajewski, Markus. “The Great Lightbulb Conspiracy.” IEEE Spectrum. 24 September 2014. Web. 24 July 2015.
Noyes, Katherine. “10 Reasons Open Source is Good for Business.” PC World. 5 November 2010. Web. 24 July 2015.
Wall, Tim. “Cell Phones Toxic to Humans and Earth.” Discovery News. 5 October 2012. Web. 24 July 2015.
Beder, Sharon. “Is planned obsolescence socially responsible?” Engineers Australia. November 1998. Web. 24 July 2015.
United Nations. Waste Management. United Nations Sustainable Development. 2013. Web. 24 July 2015.