Planned obsolescence

Your iPhone is literally designed to break…and it’s not just your iPhone

‘Planned obsolescence’ is internet conspiracy theory gold. But there’s truth in it, and it’s driving our obsession with trash

We throw too much away. That’s pretty much undisputed. But however good you think you are, and however much you recycle, there are products we all use pretty much every day that contribute to the amount of waste in our economy – and there’s not that much we can do about it.

‘Planned obsolescence’ is the idea that manufacturers purposefully make a product that will break in a few years, so you’ll have to buy another one. It keeps sales high, factories running, and people in jobs.

Making products with a shorter lifespan was actively encouraged in the 1930s to help dig America out of the Great Depression. Even in our lifetimes, a standard government response to the recession of 2007/8 was to make people *buy* more, to stimulate production.

So it’s definitely a thing, and you could argue it has its merits. But it’s also expensive, and wasteful, and is pushing a consumerist agenda that keeps us buying and throwing things away.

Could be another way? Perhaps – one idea would be an economy where we spend more money on things that last longer, fix them when they break, and recycle them to create more things that last longer. That’s known as a circular economy.

Right now, that's definitely not what we've got. Manufacturers rarely admit to planned obsolescence, but here are few the things we all use that we can pretty safely say have been designed to last less long than we might have thought...

Your iPhone

Smartphones, laptops, MP3 players (remember them?); consumer tech only really lasts a couple of years. Apple (which is pretty consistently accused of it) has been denying the idea that this is on purpose pretty fiercely. They insist that the reason people keep buying new products isn’t because their old one’s useless, but because the new one is so much better.

Consumers, unsurprisingly, aren’t too keen on spending their cash on purposefully shoddy goods. But although some of us persist cracked screens and external battery packs, eventually the software available will go out of date, and your phone company will push a brand new model on you.

Globally only 12% (pdf) of smartphone upgrades involve older devices being sold or traded for the new one. This means ecologically damaging devices end up sat in your drawer ( and eventually in landfill).

Your Nylon tights

Hold onto your hats, conspiracy theorists, we’ve got a big one for you: Nylon tights don’t actually need to ladder. The story goes that in the 1940s when an inventor called Dupont came up with Nylon tights, teams of scientists were sent back to the lab to work out a way of making them less durable. By making tights fragile and easy to rip, we’d buy more of them.

This is hard to actually find any proof of online (although there is a lot of outrage about it) but one thing is definitely true – Nylon is a polymer, or plastic, which won’t break down in landfill. As long as the fact they rip all the damn time keeps us buying new ones, there’s very little incentive for manufacturers to try and address that.

Your printer cartridges

In 2014, France became one of the is only countries to issue a law designed to protect consumers against planned obsolescence – manufacturers have to tell consumers how long their products are going to last. Four printer manufacturers are now in the middle of a lawsuit which claims that they falsely tell consumers their printer is out of ink.

It’s a fairly accepted fact that printer companies make their money from ink, not the printers themselves (it’s often cheaper just to rebuy a printer than it is to buy ink for it) and printer manufacturers have also been accused of changing the shape and size of the cartridge purposefully.

And – if you think about it – there’s no actual reason why we couldn’t just buy in in bottles and pour it into the cartridge ourselves.

Your lightbulb

This is another favourite of conspiracy theorists, and (quite excitingly) at its center is a old-school cartel – not a drug cartel, but a lightbulb cartel. The Phoebus cartel was made up of a group of technology companies in the 1920s and 30s that joined together to control the manufacture and sale of lightbulbs, and artificially limit the length of time a light bulb can last, to make people buy more.

Fast forward to 2017: according to an article in the New Yorker, there’s a lightbulb in a fire station in California which has been burning for the past 115 years. The bulb was manufactured sometime in the early 1900s, and has been on continuously ever since. If you plugged in and switched on an equivalent ‘incandescent’ bulb from a drug store today, it would only last a couple months of continuous use.

Your clothes

‘Fast fashion’ is a new phenomenon. Your gran would have had the same coat for thirty-odd years (with the same pack of mints in the pocket) whereas yours looks old after barely a winter. High street stores compete against each other to churn out collection after collection, encouraging consumers to replace their new jumper with a newer one.

But according to some experts they also purposefully make them to break – buttons aren’t sewn on properly, fibres are used in the wrong combinations so they stretch and shrink in funny ways. According to a UK government report we buy 2 million items of clothing a year, and throw away 1 million.

And, surprise surprise – fast fashion isn’t exactly known for its use of natural biodegradable material like cotton, wool or silk. Instead, your clothes are likely to be made of polyester or nylon, each containing tiny plastic ‘microfibers’ which find their way into the ocean – and the belly of a fish.

Recent articles

Reader Comments

  • Macrocompassion

    Look to who owns the land of Greece and why they are not using it properly!

    Discover how much the value of the land is being speculated in by holding it unused and the resulting lack of opportunity. Why can’t small scale farmers begin their own production of farm produce and the selling of it to local suppliers for domestic consumption?

    Adam Smith (“Wealth of Nations”,
    1776) says that land is one of the 3 factors of production (the other 2 being
    labor and durable capital goods). The usefulness of land is in the price that
    tenants pay as rent, for access rights to the particular site in question. Land
    is often considered as being a form of capital, since it is traded similarly to
    other durable capital goods items. However it is not actually man-made, so rightly
    it does not fall within this category. The land was originally a gift of nature
    (if not of God) for which all people should be free to share in its use. But its
    site-value greatly depends on location and is related to the community density
    in that region, as well as the natural resources such as rivers, minerals,
    animals or plants of specific use or beauty, when or after it is possible to reach them. Consequently,
    most of the land value is created by man within his society and therefore its
    advantage should logically and ethically be returned to the community for its
    general use, as explained by Martin Adams (in “LAND”, 2015).

    However, due to our existing laws, land is owned and formally registered and its
    value is traded, even though it can’t be moved to another place, like other
    kinds of capital goods. This right of ownership gives the landlord a big
    advantage over the rest of the community because he determines how it may be
    used, or if it is to be held out of use, until the city grows and the site
    becomes more valuable. Thus speculation in land values is encouraged by the law,
    in treating a site of land as personal or private property—as if it were an
    item of capital goods, although it is not (Mason Gaffney and Fred Harrison:
    “The Corruption of Economics”, 2005).

    Regarding taxation and local community spending, the municipal taxes we pay are
    partly used for improving the infrastructure. This means that the land becomes
    more useful and valuable without the landlord doing anything—he/she will always
    benefit from our present tax regime. This also applies when the status of unused
    land is upgraded and it becomes fit for community development. Then when this
    news is leaked, after landlords and banks corruptly pay for this information,
    speculation in land values is rife. There are many advantages if the land
    values were taxed instead of the many different kinds of production-based
    activities such as earnings, purchases, capital gains, home and foreign company
    investments, etc., (with all their regulations, complications and loop-holes).
    The only people due to lose from this are those who exploit the growing values
    of the land over the past years, when “mere” land ownership confers a financial
    benefit, without the owner doing a scrap of work. Consequently, for a truly
    socially just kind of taxation to apply there can only be one
    method–Land-Value Taxation.

    Consider how land becomes
    valuable. New settlers in a region begin to specialize and this improves their
    efficiency in producing specific goods. The central land is the most valuable
    due to easy availability and least transport needed. This distribution in land
    values is created by the community and (after an initial start), not by the
    natural resources. As the city expands, speculators in land values will
    deliberately hold potentially useful sites out of use, until planning and
    development have permitted their values to grow. Meanwhile there is fierce
    competition for access to the most suitable sites for housing, agriculture and
    manufacturing industries. The limited availability of useful land means that the
    high rents paid by tenants make their residence more costly and the provision
    of goods and services more expensive. It also creates unemployment, causing
    wages to be lowered by the monopolists, who control the big producing
    organizations, and whose land was already obtained when it was cheap. Consequently
    this basic structure of our current macroeconomics system, works to limit
    opportunity and to create poverty, see above reference.

    The most basic cause of our continuing poverty is the lack of properly paid
    work and the reason for this is the lack of opportunity of access to the land
    on which the work must be done. The useful land is monopolized by a landlord
    who either holds it out of use (for speculation in its rising value), or
    charges the tenant heavily for its right of access. In the case when the
    landlord is also the producer, he/she has a monopolistic control of the land
    and of the produce too, and can charge more for this access right than what an
    entrepreneur, who seeks greater opportunity, normally would be able to afford.

    A wise and sensible government would recognize that this problem derives from
    lack of opportunity to work and earn. It can be solved by the use of a tax
    system which encourages the proper use of land and which stops penalizing
    everything and everybody else. Such a tax system was proposed 136 years ago by
    Henry George, a (North) American economist, but somehow most macro-economists
    seem never to have heard of him, in common with a whole lot of other experts.
    (I would guess that they don’t want to know, which is worse!) In “Progress and
    Poverty” 1879, Henry George proposed a single tax on land values without other
    kinds of tax on produce, services, capital gains etc. This regime of land value
    tax (LVT) has 17 features which benefit almost everyone in the economy, except
    for landlords and banks, who/which do nothing productive and find that land
    dominance has its own reward.

    17 Aspects of LVT Affecting Government, Land Owners, Communities and

    Four Aspects for Government:

    1. LVT, adds to the national
    income as do other taxation systems, but it replaces them.

    2. The cost of collecting the LVT is less than for all of the production-related
    taxes–tax avoidance becomes impossible because the sites are visible to all.

    3. Consumers pay less for their
    purchases due to lower production costs (see below). This creates greater
    satisfaction with the management of national affairs.

    4. The national economy
    stabilizes—it no longer experiences the 18 year business boom/bust cycle, due
    to periodic speculation in land values (see below).

    Six Aspects Affecting Land Owners:

    5. LVT is progressive–owners of
    the most potentially productive sites pay the most tax.

    6. The land owner pays his LVT regardless of how his site is used. A large
    proportion of the ground-rent from tenants becomes the LVT, with the result
    that land has less sales-value but a significant “rental”-value (even
    when it is not used).

    7. LVT stops speculation in land prices and
    the withholding of land from proper use is not worthwhile.

    8. The introduction of LVT initially reduces the sales price of sites, even
    though their rental value can still grow over a longer term. As more sites
    become available, the competition for them is less fierce.

    9. With LVT, land owners are unable to pass the tax on to their tenants as rent
    hikes, due to the reduced competition for access to the additional sites that
    come into use.

    10. With LVT, land prices will
    initially drop. Speculators in land values will want to foreclose on their
    mortgages and withdraw their money for reinvestment. Therefore LVT should be
    introduced gradually, to allow these speculators sufficient time to transfer
    their money to company-shares etc., and simultaneously to meet the increased
    demand for produce (see below).

    Three Aspects Regarding Communities:

    11. With LVT, there is an
    incentive to use land for production or residence, rather than it being unused.

    12. With LVT, greater working opportunities exist due to cheaper land and a
    greater number of available sites. Consumer goods become cheaper too, because
    entrepreneurs have less difficulty in starting-up their businesses and because
    they pay less ground-rent–demand grows, unemployment decreases.

    13. Investment money is withdrawn from land and placed in durable capital
    goods. This means more advances in technology and cheaper goods too.

    Four Aspects About Ethics:

    14. The collection of taxes from
    productive effort and commerce is socially unjust. LVT replaces this extortion
    by gathering the surplus rental income, which comes without any exertion from
    the land owner or by the banks–LVT is a natural system of national income-gathering.

    15. Bribery and corruption on information
    about land cease. Before, this was due
    to the leaking of news of municipal plans for housing and industrial
    development, causing shock-waves in local land prices (and municipal workers’ and
    lawyers’ bank balances).

    16. The improved use of the more
    central land reduces the environmental damage due to a) unused sites
    being dumping-grounds, and b) the smaller amount of fossil-fuel use, when
    traveling between home and workplace.

    17. Because the LVT eliminates
    the advantage that landlords currently hold over our society, LVT provides a
    greater equality of opportunity to earn a living. Entrepreneurs can operate in
    a natural way– to provide more jobs. Then earnings will correspond to the
    value that the labor puts into the product or service. Consequently, after LVT
    has been properly introduced it will eliminate poverty and improve business