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Making Obsolescence Obsolete

Stephen Colegrave considers why today’s EU announcement about sustainable products is an essential first step to combatting our disposable culture.


Stephen Colegrave considers why today’s EU announcement about sustainable products is an essential first step to combatting our disposable culture.

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Today, the EU announced that it will introduce waste reduction targets and a new sustainable products law. If companies want to sell products in the EU, they will need to be recyclable, repairable and designed to last longer. As part of this, the EU plans to halve waste by 2030.

It is time that the business world is held to account for one of its sharpest practices that is ruining the planet: planned obsolescence. In a world obsessed with the latest innovation, it is all too easy for obsolescence to be built into products without consumers noticing. This starts with the most fundamental design decisions.

It is common knowledge that Apple was fined €25 million by the French Directorate-General for Competition, Consumer Affairs and Repression of Fraud for slowing down the function of older iPhone models without making it clear to the customer. But less well known is that Apple commonly uses a special ‘pentalobe’ screw which makes its product virtually impossible to repair by anyone other than Apple – giving the company a monopoly on repair and resulting in many consumers opting for a new replacement product instead.

Only a market as big as the EU can enforce a change in these practices, even if the UK will no longer be part of it.

The True Cost of Mobile Phones

Mobile phones are made at a considerable human and environmental cost. According to the research company GSMA, there are 5.17 billion mobile phones in the world. If just one billion are upgraded every year, the environmental impact is huge.

It is likely that the metals in your smart phone have been mined in inhumane and dangerous conditions. One of the most important areas for mining tin, tantalum and tungsten used in smart phones is the Democratic Republic of Congo, where half of the mines are controlled by armed groups of violent independent militias. There, children as young as 10 work in dangerous conditions for just one dollar a day.

Billions of phones also create huge waste. The manufacturing process for each phone generates 200 times its weight in waste products. The lead, mercury and cadmium from dumped phones release dangerous toxins into the air and water when burned or deposited improperly into landfill sites. How many of these thrown-away phones could have been repaired and designed to last longer?

How Manufacturers Get Away With Planned Obsolescence

It is all too easy for manufacturers to get away with planned obsolescence in a world that has forgotten its repair culture.

Many people have lost their parents’ skills to repair household items and aren’t prepared to pay others to mend them. Our throw-away culture means that possessions are often considered obsolete even before they break down. We are now twice as likely to replace a washing machine while it still works than in the 1950s.

It is no coincidence that, since the 1950s, we have seen a dominance of marketing over research and development (R&D) that has pushed for shorter product life-cycles and faster upgrades. In the early days, marketing focused on upgrades to entice consumers into believing that their current goods were out-of-date. The American car in the 1950s and 1960s was the epitome of this strategy: each year, more and more chrome was loaded on to the new year’s model making last year’s look dowdy.

By the 1970s, marketing enlisted R&D in actually building obsolescence into the product itself. With the help of management consultants, who were growing in stature, they persuaded R&D to lower quality and build in a limited life cycle so that products would break down just after their warranty or the HP expired.

Then, in the last decades of the 20th Century, marketing finally closed the obsolescence loop and did everything it could to prevent repairs, so that there was no chance in consumers patching up their products and avoiding a new purchase. Cars now had computer chips managing their engines and only main dealers could repair them.

Not satisfied with exerting its dominance, marketing has been able to post-rationalise a consumer benefit for this overconsumption. “One of the primary benefits of planned obsolescence is that there is a push to research and development in the company,” says industry website Marketing “This will bring out remarkable products and growth and technology in a short period.”

This Is No Longer Sustainable

Allowing marketing and manufacturers to operate like this is no longer sustainable. If left unchecked, they will continue unabated because their sales forecasts and business models rely on selling their loyal customers products they don’t need.

Today’s EU announcement is very welcome. Regulation has an important role to play in ending obsolescence and using the lever of denying products with planned obsolescence access to its market gives it teeth. But it is only the start.

As customers, we need to demand better products. We should know what the expected life cycle of a product should be and we should be confident that it can be repaired and also continually upgraded.

France is leading the way in this and insisting that products specify their expected life expectancy. It is also extending consumers’ rights to two years, giving everyone a de facto two years’ warranty.  Across Europe, consumer groups are getting together to create PROMPT – a consumer testing programme for obsolescence that is getting real data on individual product life cycles. It will be interesting to see whether the UK wants to ignore this or get involved despite of Brexit.

Real change requires a complete change of culture and consumer demand. There are too many consumer sectors in which obsolescence has become ingrained in the pricing and business model-like fast fashion. We need to demand and pay for a different and more sustainable approach.

The real innovation and marketing brilliance in the future will be from those brands that are willing to take up this challenge. In the meantime, please don’t upgrade your phone and hold on to it for another two years so we can help save the environment and ourselves.

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