What is Planned Obsolescence?

Planned obsolescence is a strategy in economics and industrial design that guarantees a product’s usefulness is limited to a fixed period of time by designing it to become obsolete, non-serviceable or unfashionable after a short duration of use. The intention of this approach is to generate continuous and frequent sales of products while decreasing the time between purchases.

This course of action ensures that consumers will seek out replacements for broken or malfunctioning products in the near future, boosting demand and sales. This strategy can also be achieved by introducing a superior product soon after the previous model was released. Consumers typically favor newer models over old versions. This form of economic system is the antithesis of a circular economy.

Companies that apply planned obsolescence believe that the additional sales offset the cost of R&D to create products that purposely last a shorter time than they actually could. An example of this policy in the tech industry is the replacement cycle of smartphones which typically have to be replaced after two years when components start to falter or slow down.

Other examples of this strategy in today’s products include software in old devices that can no longer be updated, disposable cameras, tamper resistant casings that prevent repairs of appliances and battery replacements — forcing consumers to discard products that are repairable but can’t be fixed. The cost of tampering with sealed equipment may also exceed the value of the appliance.

This concept began in the mid-1920s when General Motors chief, Alfred Sloan, Jr, suggested yearly model changes to perk up sluggish sales. Critics called his strategy “planned obsolescence” but Sloan preferred the term “dynamic obsolescence”. Sloan’s strategy led to GM surpassing sales of the more passive Ford that adhered to infrequent model changes during the early 1930s.

The phrase was further popularize by Brook Stevens, a US industrial designer who gave a talk at an advertising conference in 1954 in Minneapolis. He used the phrase “Planned Obsolescence” as the title of his talk. Stevens talked about planned obsolescence instilling in consumers – the desire to acquire a newer product sooner than necessary.

Vance Packard, published “The Waste Makers,” in 1960. The book was an exposé of the methodical attempt of companies to make us wasteful, debt-ridden, and feel forever discontented. The concept is built into many products but has disadvantages for the environment and consumers, especially when newer models offer insufficient improvements over older versions.