The earliest story of built-in obsolescence is the light bulb. Back in 1924, a cartel of the major light bulb manufacturers, including General Electric and Phillips, made sure that light bulbs didn’t significantly exceed an expected life span of 1,000 hours, so the homeowner had to buy replacement bulbs regularly.
Built-in obsolescence is prevalent in electronic goods, although not exclusive to them. Some of the most common tactics include the following.
Deliberately shortening a product’s life spanThis is the most common method used. Examples include using cheap or unreliable parts that break or wear out quickly, rendering the entire product useless. For instance, many children’s toys are built to last only as long as their weakest part, even though rough playing is expected.
Preventing repairsMany devices we use regularly can’t be repaired. Sometimes it’s simply the battery that needs replacing, but it’s glued or otherwise locked inside the device where we can’t reach it.
Companies may even suggest the warranty is void if we attempt to open the product. In other scenarios, repair services may be available, but they are often absurdly expensive, while the price of a new product is much lower.
Mobile phone manufacturers have drawn criticism recently for the lack of repairability of phones.
Restricting software upgradesMany of our devices rely on up-to-date software, particularly with the number of viruses and scams around. A product’s software can be made to fail after a certain period, forcing the user to upgrade their product.
You might have encountered this issue with an older mobile phone. I was still using my iPhone after five years, but unfortunately, even though the phone still performed all the required tasks, I had to upgrade to a new phone because the software no longer supported any of the apps and my phone was no longer protected.
In 2018, Apple was fined $27 million in France for intentionally slowing down the speed of older phones through software updates. Although Apple claimed it was to provide better battery performance, that didn’t help their case because customers should also be able to replace the battery.
The perception of obsolescenceSometimes companies don’t even design for obsolescence. They simply market the product in a way that suggests you should replace your old device. The new release will have some feature that is bigger or better.
Fast fashion is a good example of the perception of obsolescence, conveying the idea that your clothes are out of date faster than you can get them home from the store.
Avoiding planned obsolescenceAvoiding built-in obsolescence can be tricky. Consider whether you need a new product or whether you can keep using what you have. Look into other options like repairing your old device or buying secondhand.
Do your research, and check reviews to get a feel for the durability and repairability of an item before you buy. Some companies are headed in the right direction, making their products more repairable and upgradable.
For example, Framework has designed a laptop computer with a modular design that gives the user flexibility to upgrade, downgrade, or repair their laptop at any stage. To learn more about what to look out for when choosing a new device, check out my book Recycling For Dummies.
Finally, the best advice I can give is to take your time and not be pressured by advertising that tells you to get the latest device or product. Sleep on it, and remember it’s your hard-earned money that you’ll be spending.